Wednesday 28 March 2012

Subtext and Metaphor

I had a discussion with a friend some time back on the topic of subtext and metaphor, particularly in dramatic writing.

At the time I thought the two were separate and more or less mutually exclusive, but I wasn’t completely sure and so I did some reading.

I replied to my friend what I discovered, and am posting it here with his permission after some amendments.

I am obviously no expert on the matter, but I do hope anyone reading this will find it informative or at least mildly interesting.

I've looked more into the use of subtext and metaphor in different contexts. The lines between the two are not as clear cut as I made it out to be. Often in metaphors, there is subtext, and in subtext, there are metaphors; there is a lot of overlap and most good writers employ both concurrently on different levels or to different degrees.

“What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.”
~Sol Stein, How to Grow a Novel

That’s really the heart of subtext: what is hidden behind what is stated, like the bottom of an iceberg of which we can only see the top. Subtext lends layers of subtlety, complexity and tension which would be lost if there wasn’t any.

Some examples of Subtext in Dialogue
Taken verbatim from

1. An 18-year-old has decided to go into the military after high school:
a. Has conversation with his parents about them wanting him to take on more responsibility.
b. Tells his parents that college really isn’t for him, even though he knows they want him to go.

2. A woman finds a man attractive and would like to date him:
a. Starts a conversation about his hobbies and who he likes to do them with.
b. Starts a conversation about a social gathering to check his interest in events like it.

3. An elderly woman wants to get a dog, but doesn’t think her husband will agree:
a. Starts a conversation about how empty the house feels now that the grandkids live so far away.
b. Starts a conversation about how the neighborhood is going downhill and it would be nice to have some protection.

These are very direct but good  examples of subtext of personal intention. For differing reasons, the characters above cannot speak about their desires openly.

Thus, conflict/tension is felt by the reader/audience/viewer, rather than read/seen outright.

This is why subtext is so important in dramatic writing. If it's one whole play or film of a family arguing endlessly, it's unrealistic, tiresome and off-putting, whereas if it's many smaller hidden arguments leading to one final tooth and claws blow-out, there's build up, believability and legitimacy, i.e. your characters have earned the right to explode because they've put up with so much and now everything bursts out uncontrollably.

David Mamet said, "Characters might hardly ever say what they mean, but they always say something designed to get what they want."

"What is it that they want?" Good writers are clear on this, even if their characters speak vaguely.

Subtext in Song: In Buddy's Eyes
A song written by Stephen Sondheim for the musical Follies. You can listen to the song here.
Life is slow but it seems exciting
'Cause Buddy's there.
Gourmet cooking and letter-writing
And knowing Buddy's there.
Every morning—don't faint—
I tend the flowers, can you believe it?
Every weekend I paint
For umpteen hours.

And yes, I miss a lot
Living like a shut-in.
No, I haven't got
Cooks and cars and diamonds.
Yes, my clothes are not
Paris fashions, but in

Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes
I don't get older.
So life is ducky,
And time goes flying,
And I'm so lucky
I feel like crying,
(I married the right man, Ben)

In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's eyes
I can't get older.
I'm still the princess,
Still the prize.

In Buddy's eyes
I'm young, I'm beautiful.
In Buddy's arms,
On Buddy's shoulder,
I won't get older,
Nothing dies.

And all I ever dreamed I'd be,
The best I ever thought of me,
Is every minute there to see
In Buddy's eyes.

In Follies, Sally sings this song to Ben, a man she used to love and still has some feelings for, at a reunion many years after their original courtship and break-up.

On the surface of the words, there's nothing wrong but really it's a huge lie she's telling Ben (and herself).

She's sings she's now blissfully married to and living a charmed domestic life with Buddy, who she earlier says "is the person who makes her life worth living". In truth, she doesn't really care much for Buddy (or perhaps never did) and feels deep resentment that Ben ditched her for her friend Phylis and became a successful high-living diplomat. It's a song of revenge: look how happy I am without you.

She sings Cause Buddy's there... Knowing Buddy's there, but in reality, her husband's a traveling salesman who's hardly at home. She sings how beautiful she is to Buddy but in reality, she's grown dumpy and plain. Not only that, Buddy is having a long-running affair which she is aware of.

The whole song paints a loving, contented, ideal life and marriage which is opposite of the truth.

So the context of the play (what we understand about Sally's life) gives the song subtext, and the way the singer sings it (with regret and resentment in her voice) also gives it subtext. That's why I love Stephen Sondheim's songs: the actors have to act the songs as much as sing them.

Even the music's orchestration (by Jonathan Tunick) utilises subtext. When Sally sings about her husband it's woodwinds: dry music, hinting at detachment and regret whereas when it's about herself it's in strings: grand music, hinting at self-delusion.

Subtext, by definition, is subtle.

Broader Subtext: Slave Songs of the South

Prior to the emancipation of black slaves during the American Civil War, slaves sang many songs: when they worked, when they worshiped and when they congregated. Many of these songs were about the story of Exodus: the Biblical story of the escape of the Jewish slaves from Egypt to the Promised Land of Israel.

On the surface, they were just spiritual hymns about the Exodus, but subtexually, there was a lot more. The slaves were looking forward to their own escape, their own freedom, and their own redemption from the white slave-owners. Obviously, they couldn't speak or sing of this openly for fear of punishment or death.

This is an example of how subtext can touch on not just personal intention but very broad societal issues, in this case, the liberation of black slaves, and justice for the wrongs they've suffered.

This tradition actually could also be seen in the 60's American civil rights movement, although the songs from the 60's were more openly protesting/obvious.

A great and oft-quoted example of a short story which utilises subtext is Hills Like White Elephants by Earnest Hemingway. A lot is said both by the characters and the author implicitly. You can read it online.

An example of how subtext is used in a meta/self-aware manner humorously is this scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.


A metaphor is basically a devise comparing two (usually unrelated) objects/ideas to display or make a point about one object or idea. Symbolism, analogy, parable are all linked to metaphor.

We use metaphors all the time in daily speech. We often say "Life is like a brief candle", or "The world is a stage and we are merely players" (both from Shakespeare). Like a candle, life lasts for a while, then ends and is forgotten forever. Like a stage, our world is filled with people just acting assigned parts.

Many idioms are metaphors: The early bird catches the worm. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. The pen is mightier than the sword. Obviously, none of these are to be taken literally.

But in literature, metaphors usually take a larger scheme. Animal Farm by George Orwell is an obvious example. Orwell uses the farm and pigs to represent (and criticise) the communist state and its leaders without once mentioning the word "communist".

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding uses the boys stranded on an island to represent human nature as a whole, and many of the objects in the novel (the different boys, the glasses, the shell, the fire, the monster, the pig’s head, etc) are all symbols meant to represent something else.

Fantasy writing often (but not always) works metaphorically. Fantasy writers often use seemingly different worlds with unusual norms or fantastical creatures to mirror our world or represent real life problems. An obvious example is a deep hatred for one race in a fantasy world can mirror our own real world prejudices.

A friend once told me, “I can't read fantasy, I just can't relate to going out to slay a dragon”. To which I replied, “Ah, but the dragon is actually something else in real life.”

The fantastical become metaphors/symbols for the real.


Often however, the two are intertwined. The Crucible by Arthur Miller is very much a metaphor for witch-hunt for communists in America under McCarthism.
In the play itself, however, Miller uses subtext: Elizabeth often speaks her desires to John indirectly, for example. The behaviour of the girls might hint at wider society and how humans easily turn against each other.

In the Lord of the Flies, I think Golding makes many subtextual comments about humans outside his fictional island. He doesn't say any of it, but his characters display it.

A short example in a play would be a man suggesting to his wife: let's have grilled chicken instead of fried which we've always had, to which she objects. The grilled chicken could be a metaphor for other things: a new car, a new house location, a new sexual position? The subtext is that he wants that item but they have problems talking about it openly.

Another oft-quoted example where both subtext and metaphor are combined is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, a short story available online. Most of the story uses subtext; everyone is doing mildly odd things in anticipation for some big occasion but it's never explicitly stated until the end what that is exactly. The story on the whole can be seen as a metaphor: perhaps the oppression of small town puritanical communities, the absurdity of tradition, the falsity of human relationships.

The story, originally published in the New Yorker in 1948, drew heavy criticism and shock; the writer got hundreds of letters of hate-mail for years and many people cancelled subscriptions to the magazine.

It has however gone on to be a classic short story studied in many schools and adapted to many other media.


I hope you found the above useful!

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

Very helpful, thankyou!

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