Fiction Writing: Subtext, the Story Within the Story

Fiction Writing: Subtext, the Story Within the Story


Something that is often missing in stories, particularly short stories and flash fiction, is subtext. A quick search on subtext revealed a lot of posts on dialog and setting and how to use them to imply what is not expressly written. For this post, I’m taking it a little larger in the sense of looking at meanings or ideas which underlie the “cover story,” which can be communicated through various devices such as dialogue and setting.

So why is subtext important? Because it’s the jewel buried under the obvious which adds depth to the story and characters while creating the emotional connection we all search for in a read. Without subtext, stories can feel flat. Worse, forgettable. Adding layers of subtext adds to a stories dimension and emotional effect.

First, decide on your “cover story,” that initial surface read. Then consider what elements are driving and influencing that story. What is motivating these character –what do they fear or worry about, what is at root of their internal or external conflicts? How do all these elements affect the stakes?

Now, the key is not to bash the reader over the head with this information, or it would no longer be subtext but part of the cover story. But by carefully planning when, where and how much information to include without interrupting the flow of the main story, you can take your story from 2D to 3D.

One example of this is a flash fiction piece I wrote a while back called Shadow in the Sun:

The box weighs in my arms and the corners bite into my skin. Spying the appointed place, the one I chose between the flower bed and the maple tree, I begin the slow procession of one.

The grass is soft beneath my bare feet. The flowers are fragrant and the sun shines down, kissing everything it graces with golden rays. Everything, that is, except me. A shadow hangs over my head.

I hug the box to my chest, ignoring the pain in my arms. Thinking of Cesar pushes a sob from my lips, and finally, I let the tears flow.

At the place, I set the box down. From the flower bed beside me, I pull a rusted spade and start to hack at the ground. I barely scratch the surface; it has not rained for days.

Cesar used to slink through these flowers, breaking the stalks and tramping the blossoms into the ground. I would shout, ‘Cesar! Stop that or else–!’ and every time I said those words, I was reminded of days long past. Days when the front door slammed to admit a line of chattering teens, and then, young adults. Days when at six o’clock sharp, he would come home and we’d sit at the table, all four of us, to dinner. Now I only use the side and back doors, and the dining room table is cluttered with stuff I don’t need but collect anyway.

Then one rainy night, Cesar came to the back door. I took him in and cleaned him up. He sat on my lap when I watched TV, kept my feet warm while I drank my tea, and purred when I rubbed his belly. And in return, when he destroyed my garden, he let me holler after him as I used to do with my own children. He let me feed him scraps from the kitchen table. And he slept next to me in bed, warming the place where a different sort of body used to lie.

The hole is dug. I set the box gently inside and then cover it up.

‘He was only a cat,’ whispers the wind in my ears.

I gently pat the earth and smooth away the lumps. I set a rose on the freshly turned dirt and sit back on my heels to take in the sun. Then I stand and take a breath before turning to face the empty house.

At first glance, this is a story about a sad woman burying her dead cat. But as this story develops, it becomes clear that this cat is representative of much more. The clues left for the reader infer a) what happened to her b) how she felt about it c) how she dealt with it. The reader then can piece together the real story behind the act of burying the cat. What’s important is that the reader winds up with his or her own unique relationship to the story. And that, I think, is the true power of subtext.

By Dyane Forde of


6 Responses

  1. Sweet story about Cesar and your subtexts shine through. Subtexts are what make a story robust.

  2. Dyane, thank you for this wonderful insight on the use of subtext. I’ve written short stories off and on for over 30 years, sharing them mostly with my trash can until the shredder arrived. I think I may have enough confidence now, to let one be seen by public eyes and your example has been very helpful.

    1. That’s wonderful, Carol. 🙂 It does take some confidence to put your work out there, but just remember your voice is unique to you–no one else sees the world like you do or can out your feelings into words as you can. Take a chance. 🙂

Leave a Reply