This is one of my favorite writing subjects. Sub-texting is about all the ways we speak without directly saying what we mean. It is what gives dialogue its zing. Because, let’s face it, dialogue that is straightforward and says exactly what it means is not only unnatural, it’s boring.
Sub-texting is the way a man and a woman court each other by looks, by hints, by posture, but never speaking their attraction out loud. It’s the way an argument takes place seething under the surface, implied, but never actually confronted head on. It’s the way someone lets you in on the fact they’ve got a secret without actually saying so. In short, it’s what makes both real life and fiction tantalizing.
Ways to Include Sub-Text in Fiction
Have a character speak without words.
About two-thirds of communication is non-verbal, so you can rarely communicate what is being said using only dialogue. However, just throwing in a shrug or a wince isn’t enough to make for interesting sub-text. What is the character unable to say? How do they use their physical selves to hint at it? Or, even better, perhaps they have something they’re desperately holding back. How can you use their own bodies and faces to betray them? Its’ important to remember that dialogue is a form of conflict, and sometimes this may even be internal conflict within a single character.
To make for compelling sub-text, find interesting ways of describing non-verbal communication. For example, in The Blue Sword, McKinley doesn't write that Corlath is angry and refuses to answer. Instead, she has Harry think about “a silence so rigid that speaking into it was like chopping holes in a frozen lake.”
Have a character intentionally misdirect the conversation or say something different than they mean.
Did I mention that dialogue is conflict? One way a character pulls off conflict is to avoid giving another character the answer they’re looking for, whether because of an inner or outer struggle. The reader will be left with the sense that the character has information they can’t share. For example, in Paradise Valley, Domingo in response to Miriam’s kiss looks at the horse “with something akin to love” and tells Miriam to thank her father for the gift of a saddle. Miriam is hurt. But the reader knows the look of love is for Miriam and that he can’t respond to her because it would offend her father.
Have a character answer a question that hasn’t been asked.
Good dialogue in real life involves a fair amount of mind reading. In other words, someone asks a question, but the respondent has to work out what kind of information the questioner is really seeking. This can make for snappy dialogue in fiction. A character may ask a question, but under the surface is the real question they’re too afraid to ask, don’t know how to ask or don’t even realize they want to ask. When the listener picks up the question that’s hanging in the air instead of answering the spoken question, it creates an element of surprise as the conversation zigzags around the reader’s expectations.
Have a character pick up on an answer that hasn’t been given.
The questioner can hint at the answer the respondent is unable to supply herself. In Still Missing, when the police question Annie as to why she stayed on at her abductor’s cabin for two days after she was free to go, Annie won’t give a straight answer. Finally the police inspector says, “We found a basket and some baby clothes, Annie.” In this way, he tells her that he already suspects the answer. Annie stayed on because she was looking for her missing baby. This keeps readers on the edge of their seats. They know about the baby, but waiting for the police to draw out the confession from Annie, first in hints and then in bits and pieces creates tension.
Ultimately, you want to achieve two things with subtext. You want there to be an element of mystery, which you achieve by letting the reader know that some things are hidden just under the surface. And you want to create the kind of complexity that mimics real life. Giving the reader something to read between the lines is a way of doing this.