Subtext: To Resolve or Not To Resolve?

I’ve written a lot in praise of creating a scene to be heavy in subtext. It’s something of a passion of mine. But one of the biggest questions when introducing new or otherwise unexplained subtext—in short, subtextual cues that the audience does not have context for—is whether or not to explain what’s really going on back there in the scene itself. How do you decide?

I find the answer lies in how important the subtext is to both scene and story.

Some subtext is throwaway, like a couple of characters playing up an old in-joke; it might be in the background, it might be blink-and-you-miss-it, or maybe it’s obvious but short and clearly a one-off thing. Either way, it could easily be excised and the scene could still stand on its own. In cases like that, it really doesn’t matter if you reveal it or not. (Unless, of course, you pay attention to your audience and they’re pestering you to do so.)

Then there’s subtext that’s vital to the direction of a scene, as it has an effect on what the characters are doing and why they’re doing it. Maybe Tuyet’s being unusually hasty because she’s caught hints that her old blackmailer is making a personal appearance; maybe an old incident is making Samar suspicious of Lirit even when the latter’s pretty much facilitating Samar reaching her patient, but either way, if the subtext weren’t sitting there the scene would be going entirely differently. Situations like this are best to take on a case-by-case basis. Ask yourself a few questions: Is it possible for the reason behind the subtext to come out here without it sounding forced or someone breaking character? Is this my last chance to take advantage of said subtext? How much have I baited the audience already (or, if it’s a game or you’re the kind of person who reads comments about your serial/webcomic/what-have-you, how aggressively curious is the audience getting)? How plot-important is it going to be later; would the plot be helped or harmed by finding out now?

Then there are scenes that are about the subtext—it’s an actual focus point of the scene, and nobody’s going anywhere until it’s definitively resolved, definitively not going to be resolved, or supplanted by something far more urgent. Situations like this only require one side to be hiding something from the other (most often the antagonists from the protagonists—I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot better at writing scenes in which things are found out than scenes in which they are definitely prevented from being found out and no backsies later). Under most circumstances, if the audience doesn’t already know what’s going on, these sorts of scenes should involve either revealing the source of the subtext or dropping a narrative guarantee that it WILL be answered later. (It’s also good to keep these things short; unless you’ve got really engaging characters, the circle of evasion and counterevasion that two characters get into can last hours, testing the audience’s patience all the while.)

Subtext requires you to think anyway; make sure part of that thinking is thinking ahead.

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