How to Write Great Subtext
in Storytelling

A hand writing subtext

Subtext is a device writers use to skillfully convey meaning to a story that goes beyond dialogue or what is described in settings. It is that which is implied rather than what is obvious. Writers must learn to write great subtext for their stories to have a mildly perceptible heartbeat.

MasterClass further tells us that “Subtext is the implicit meaning of a text—the underlying message that is not explicitly stated or shown. Subtext gives the reader information about characters, plot, and the story’s context as a whole.” 

MasterClass has more to say on How to Write Subtext.

Using subtext will change mundane exchanges into deep emotional experiences, which will effectively expand the theme and the meaning between characters. This is done without telling but through showing. 

For instance, Mary’s sister-in-law comes to visit. Mary says, “I’m so glad you’re here.” But Mary’s face shows she’s frowning while her lips form a tight smile. Mary says one thing, however, her demeanor reveals what lies beneath, which is displeasure. This is an example of subtext through dialogue. You’ll find more examples later in this article.

Knowing how to write great subtext is crucial for novelists, screenwriters, and poets aiming to provide their readers with a profound emotional experience. It is not enough for readers to understand the crux of a story on the surface; they need to see and feel what a character sees and feels. 

How to Write Great Subtext Can be Shown 
Through Metaphors and Allegories

Sergeant barking orders

While subtext is often shown through dialogue, as we saw with Mary, it can also be shown with metaphor and allegory. These avenues offer a rich meaning that keeps readers captivated.

A metaphor is a figure of speech where a word or phrase is represented in place of something else. A metaphor cannot be taken at face value.


  • The sergeant barked orders at the recruits. (The word barked represents the vocalization of a dog and suggests harshness.)
  • The hungry young boys wolfed out on the spaghetti. (The words wolfed out represent the extreme hunger of a wild animal, the wolf.)
  • Reba was gunned down by the unexpected diagnosis. (The words gunned down suggest turmoil and reflect the emotion that Reba must have felt.)

As you learn how to write great subtext using metaphor, remember that it can also be used in allegory. An allegory is a narrative story that has an underlying meaning with moral or political significance. 

Let’s take the fable of Mercury and the Woodman:

A woodman was felling a tree by a river when his axe bounced off a tree trunk and fell into the water. The man became distressed. Mercury appeared and asked the man what was the problem. The woodman told him he’d lost his axe in the river. Mercury dove into the water and brought up a golden axe, asking if it was his. The woodman said it was not. 

Mercury again dove into the river and brought up a silver axe at which time the woodman said it was not his.

On the third dive, Mercury brought up the correct one. And the woodman was deeply pleased. Mercury appreciated the man’s honesty and gave him a present of both the gold and silver axes. 

The woodman told his companions about what happened. One of his companions became greedy and contrived a plan. He let his axe fall into the river, purposely. Mercury appeared as before and brought up a golden axe, asking the man if it was his. The companion falsely exclaimed that it was.

Mercury knew the truth, however, and refused to give the man the golden axe or any axe, not even the man’s original one.

The moral of this fable is that honesty is the best policyWhen writers use the literary device of allegory in subtext, it adds layers to their writing. It also encourages readers to participate in the narrative, becoming complicit in connecting the hidden mysteries of the stories.

The Use of Silence in Dialogue is an Example of 
How to Write Great Subtext

Woman with zippered mouth

We’ve looked at metaphor and allegory. Now let’s turn our attention back to dialogue. All of these literary devices are dynamic vehicles for subtext.

You’ve had the experience of talking with someone and asking a question to which she falls silent. This makes you perk up and wonder what the silence means. Silence can speak volumes to the point of being deafening.

The reader then begins to read between the lines, the mind scrambling to uncover its meaning. What’s written in a narrative mimics what happens in real life and adds a reading urgency to the story. 

Besides silence, subtext is also shown when your character hesitates to answer a question or changes the subject of conversation.


1. Dana says, “Did the doctor give Bruce a diagnosis?”

Allison lights a cigarette.

2. Gregory asks, “How’d you enjoy vacationing in the mountains?”

Billy hesitates, and then says, “Got anything to eat? My stomach’s growling.”

At this point, the reader will search for deeper meanings. And you will have succeeded in delivering to your reader subtextual wizardry. 

When Learning How to Write Great Subtext, 
Remember the Setting and Symbols

Woman swallowed by a swell

Stories take place somewhere. The setting may be on a boat, at a sidewalk cafe, or any number of venues. Regardless, the setting can be described in subtext. 


  • The inside of the car is a pigsty. 
  • The unruly swell swallows the surfer.
  • The home at the end of the street is a house of horrors.

Subtext gets its impact from what is implied rather than what is said directly. By developing solid backstories for your characters, you open awesome worlds. Timing and context breathe life into subtext, providing deep layers of meaning.

Symbols also convey subtext. In the movie Sleeping With the Enemy,  Julia Roberts’ character throws her wedding ring in the toilet. The wedding ring is the symbol, the subtext. It conveys to the audience that the character feels the marriage is over. 

Using subtext to drive a story forward is advisable as it offers an audience mystery and a memorable emotional experience. Use subtext in areas of dialogue, which includes silence and hesitation, in settings, and symbols. Become comfortable with the use of metaphors and allegories. In learning how to write great subtext, realize that you are offering your audience a finely woven mesh of meaning, a tapestry of emotional cohesiveness.

Images created with Tai

“How to Write Subtext.” MasterClass, 23 Aug. 2021,   write-subtext.