Subtext in Fiction and Non-Fiction

I was almost 5 minutes late to work today because I kept reading and rereading varied posts on Tumblr about diversity in our entertainment. I read these kinds of articles on other sites as well since it’s become a huge and, unfortunately, controversial topic thanks to all the Disney remakes. Almost every discussion regarding ethnic diversity in entertainment is argumentative and full of aggravation. There’s a heat behind many people expressing their hatred for racism, misrepresentation, and the like in their arguments, hoping to demonize and ridicule their opposers who may be implying their tolerance for racism in entertainment in the slightest. You’d think I caught this from the arguments as they are, but actually, it was the subtext and the subtext revealed much more than I just described.

Identifying subtext is reading between the lines, basically. We find subtext in tone and diction more than anything. In fiction, it’s most apparent in dialogue or first-person narration. In non-fiction, it’s most apparent in works that are more emotional and argumentative than works that rely heavily on logic and information. The more subtext is identified, the more transparent a written piece becomes. Let’s start with fiction.

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Subtext in Fiction

I’m bringing back the wonderful Tim Hickson, aka Hello Future Me on YouTube, who is just spectacular and someone I think every writer should subscribe to. This is one of his most recent videos where he discusses how pacing works in a variety of genres and how you can figure out what style of pacing works best for your story. He brings up many wonderful points, but my favorite ones were his points on subtext. As I stated before, subtext brings transparency. In fiction that transparency is applied to the characters and the setting revealing what’s going on in internal and external realities. Tim points out that the audience is always “investigating the text for extra meaning”. Why? Because that’s the audience’s way of deciding whether or not a character or event is worth caring about. Our readers care about our story when there’s a good hook in the inciting incident leading to the big climax. The subtext needs to orbit those two plot elements to keep the readers engaged.

So fiction writers must understand that subtext isn’t just what keeps our audience turning the pages, but also shows how considerate the author is of their audience. All of us writers want our audience to care about our story so we do what we can to show we kept them in mind. That’s also why subtext has such great influence over pacing; depending on the elements of the plot, the genre, and the subtext, the flow of the story will evolve for the sake of the audience. With that being said, subtext is important in non-fiction too as it truly reveals how much the author cares about their audience.

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Subtext in Non-Fiction

I’m not going to share the Tumblr post I was engaged in, but let me tell you what all of us Tumblr users see in the subtext probably 99.999999% of the arguments on that site: frustration and competitiveness. When you write anything that is argumentative, academic or otherwise, the way you come off to your audience should always be top priority because those are the people you’re trying to persuade. A solid argument will often follow these steps:

  • Introduction/Thesis
  • Main Argument and Evidence
  • Opposing Arguments and Evidence
  • Writer’s Personal Stance
  • Conclusion/Findings

When frustration and competitiveness is interwoven in this general guideline for an argument, the author immediately loses credibility. It’s not because of the passion and fire in the writing (since pathos or “emotional content” is often expected) , but it’s because of the lack of consideration for the audience. Tumblr and other internet writers love to lead their argument with an insult or belittlement to the opposing party. Imagine starting one of your essays for an English professor with “All right, you pretentious twat, you better f**king pay attention and don’t you dare assume there’s gonna be anything “wiki” ahead because I’m a goddamn scholar.” This doesn’t translate into “I know what I’m talking about,”; it’s more like “This is what I think of you and I’ve decided due to previous interactions with you, I dislike you and don’t really care about your perspective; my writing is next to divine so why do you think you matter?” You may think I’m over-exaggerating, but I’ve lost count of how many “I’m studying [insert academic field here], so I know what I’m talking about.” There’s nothing wrong with addressing your experience, but the subtext is what alerts your audience to lose interest in your work. Transparency and personality are apparent in subtext and it make or break your writing.

The writer of a memoir, a travel essay, a stream of consciousness piece, and even an academic journal article have to be conscious of their subtext; otherwise, they could sabotage their chances of ever being heard. What is the memoir of a manipulative liar? What is the travel essay of someone who just went across the street? What is a stream of consciousness piece of someone who refuses to open up? What is an academic journal article by scholars who introduce themselves as the best of the best and didn’t need a peer review? What is an argument laced with insults? Not worth reading. Not worth taking seriously. A joke. Why? Because if the subtext is stating “I’ll never be considerate of your opinion,” your audience will reflect by neglecting your work. That’s why I’m sad to say that I was almost late to work just to realize that some people who present arguments about ethnic diversity in entertainment have a tendency to shift their argumentative stance from being advocates of diversity to being advocates for their insecurities. They come off as writers, academics, debaters, and analysts who don’t want change; they want to win and feel better about themselves.

This is important to point out because winning an argument or persuading your audience isn’t supposed to be like a boxing match where you beat your opposers to the ground and for the hell of it you pull out a knife and slash them to pieces just to make it crystal clear that you’re the superior fighter. Argumentative writing is an opportunity to be objective, considerate, transparent, and ultimately, heard. Our arguments may never be 100% foolproof and no amount of insults will make it that way, which is why we must remain objective and consider opposing views before we become vulnerable and express our genuine stance on the topic. We try to present our best. Insults and belittling at its finest really means this in subtext: “I’m afraid of being vulnerable, so if I tear apart your character before I address it, I hope to appear as better than you without being vulnerable at all.” It’s Bullying 101. Even if you despise your opposer, you can address them and your disagreements with them without stooping to their level.

If there is no openness and objectivity to your writing, rarely will your audience be open and objective enough to give it a chance. Subtext will call you out, dude.

And let me address this loud and clear: I am not supporting any kind of kindness or tolerance towards racist parties who disapprove of ethnic diversity in entertainment and otherwise. I stand for dignity and enlightenment over ignorance. Don’t let them pull you down to their level. Ever.

The Subtext in This Blog Post

Because why not?

  • The discussions about diversity in entertainment are obscure to me
  • I don’t think people know how to properly argue or present their point, but wish they did because there are great minds out there
  • I don’t approve of degradation of others or the self
  • I don’t approve of unfairness or inconsideration
  • Life is full of unfairness and inconsideration and it bothers me
  • I can’t stop or control the injustice in the world, but think I can do my part with expressive blog posts
  • My stance in this post has elements of subjectivity even though I promote objectivity
  • I believe learning from your opposition has more value than completely disregarding them (because I’m a trickster-loving pagan lol)

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