17.34: Developing Subtext

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Maurice Broaddus, and Howard Tayler

We begin this episode with a quick exploration of the terminology, and what we mean when we say “text,” “context,” and “subtext.” Subtext exists between text and context. It’s the information which isn’t actually in the text, but which we are able to divine based on the context. And in this episode we talk about how to use context and text to provide subtext to the reader.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.


Grab a scene with dialog. Delete every third line of dialog, and then go back and try to use non-verbal cues to make the scene still make sense.

The Lies of the Ajungo, Moses Ose Utomi

5 thoughts on “17.34: Developing Subtext”

  1. Your discussion of subtext reminded me of Electrical Engineering. EE uses Complex numbers. Each number like a voltage or a current has a “real” component and an “imaginary” component. When talking about what the imaginary component is about, I am going to skip over the whole “square root of -1” business in the interests of brevity. You’ll just have to take it on faith that EE DOES NOT WORK without the “imaginary” component being very real.

    The problem is that in the real world of meters and gages you can never directly measure the imaginary component. You can only measure the real component. Sometimes you can infer the value of the imaginary component of some voltage or current. Often you can’t even do that.

    Subtext works the same way in writing. It is imaginary in that if you look for it in the dialog set down on the written page, it’s not there. It is imaginary. But if it didn’t exist the thing (the writing) wouldn’t work.

  2. I received a notification for this update, but my podcast app can’t see this episode.

    1. Yep, my google podcasts never got the episode either. Luckily, the version on the website did the job, although I like my podcast app better. Maybe next week?

  3. This week, in between the lines, Dan, Mary Robinette, Maurice, and Howard talked about the third dimension of dialogue, subtext. The layer of meaning underneath the words on the page. Which bits of body language can you describe for the most impact? Moody salt? You’ll find a lot of words that you can read in the transcript now available in the archives. Subtext? Well, you have to read between the lines for that!

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