Sub-text, not just when we write but in daily life. A limp handshake when we greet someone we don’t like, the turn of a cheek to avoid a kiss or the lowering of a voice to avoid being overheard.
According to the Russian teacher and theatre director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, who revolutionized acting technique, defines sub-text as the thoughts and problems behind the dialogue. In both theatre and writing, the power of words in our text is enhanced by words left unspoken. The unwritten past, and the drive toward the future influence the character that brings a novel to life. A reaction that shows in a facial expression—a mouth that twists, a tear unshed, an unexpected smile, the tap of a finger. A cry ignored, a pale complexion, laughter or screams when unexplained phenomena “go bump in the night.”
Subtext is a story within a story that illustrates the underlying personality of the character. In theatre, the actor contributes to the sub-text with his interpretation, in a book, a reader’s imagination will add to the author’s and, the writer’s knowledge of the character she works with, thinks and dreams about, adds the sub-text that makes the human beings that inhabit the pages of her book surprise, delight, and sometimes change the plot and/or premise of the story.
The body language—the way each character walks, their background, their attitude toward someone they love or hate or ignore. It may be a facial tic, a hand over a mouth, a constant smile—that provides an unspoken thought and motive that’s understood by the observer and reader.
We—as writers—make mental notes when we people watch or eavesdrop on a private conversation and—perhaps—there is another writer watching and listening to us.