Writing: Subtext in Setting

Text Versus Subtext.jpgToday let’s tackle subtext in setting.  Subtext, when we rip away all the frills and look at it naked, is the unique theme or style hidden within your writing.  It’s the feeling and unspoken sentiments your words relay.  Whether you are tackling dialogue or narrative input, subtext is present.  This sub-textual feeling is often based on whichever character is offering this information.

Here’s a real world concept to help you visualize this idea.  When I was a Combat Cameraman in the Navy, I would attach with combat units and document their missions.  Many of those missions were nighttime raids to apprehend wanted men.  Because of the equipment I had been issued, and my training with it, I could collect visual intelligence in the dark – literally.  This is why I was useful.

Now that’s the background.  Let’s get to the point.


This photo was taken by Michael Watkins, who was stationed at Combat Camera with me.

During a mission the team would breach the door, flow into the building, secure the area, and sometimes someone would be there to apprehend, and sometimes it was what they call a, “dry-hole.” This meant it was empty.  Regardless, I would flow into the building at the rear of the assaulting team, provide backup, and as soon as the area was secured, my rifle would hang and my cameras would come up.  I would document anything and everything I could find that seemed relevant, and some things that were seemingly irrelevant.

After the mission was over and we got back to wherever we were staying, I used my portable workstation to compile photos and video into an After Action Report (AAR).  The next morning/night the team, and the local combatant commander (person in charge of all operations in the region) would assemble.  The team would provide a verbal AAR.  Each member of the team (which ranged from 6-12) would provide a rundown of what they saw, what they gathered, what went right, and what went wrong.

talking about the plan.jpgThis is where the idea of subtext in setting really comes into play.  While many of their recollections were similar, each one was different.  Each person focused on a different aspect of the mission.  The guy who specialized in breaching (knocking down doors, windows, and walls) would talk about how the breaching went, then his description from inside varied.  The team leader would talk about coordination, but his description from inside, again,  varied.  The intelligence guy would talk about artwork, posters, and murals he observed and what those meant – and so on.

Each one of their perspectives and descriptions of setting and events were limited by their own worldview.  While they all talked about the same thing, each one of their perspectives was different.  That’s important to realize.

play on video.pngThen I would push play on the video I compiled of the mission.  I always found it very interesting (rewarding) when my video offered them insights they missed.  I didn’t have tactical advice to offer, I didn’t specialize in breaching or tactics or the analysis of intelligence, I specialized in observation and collection.  I had been trained to collect everything and anything in a very small amount of time.  I didn’t speak, my video spoke for me.  In this way, I was almost a omniscient observer of setting (i.e. an unbiased viewpoint of the events).

This was real life.  And this also serves as a solid foundation for how we should approach writing setting from a characters point of view.  Let’s play with some made up narrative from a mission.  For the purpose of subtext in setting, let’s focus on the initial entry by an assault force.

*Forgive my sloppiness, I’m making up this next part as I go*

Team Leader Perspective

This site was like every site we deal with in the region.  Dirt walls about 8-feet high, and a sliding metal gate closing off entry to the two-story mud and brick building.  My guys were tucked up tight on the wall, stacked neatly chest to back, and safe from any potential threat.  I signaled for the breach and indicated a chain was barring our path.  The breacher rolled up, cut the chain with bolt cutters, and we flowed in.

eagle eye.jpgSubtext:  We have a viewpoint from the most experienced person on the team.  The information isn’t highly detailed, because in reality, he is looking at the situation like an eagle from above.  There is a feeling of confidence (i.e. this isn’t the first building like this, my guys were in a safe position, the stack was neat).

Breacher Perspective

We were stacked up against a clay and sand wall.  It would stop a bullet, but nothing more.  I had my shoulder tight against the man in front of me and was waiting for the Team Leader to give me the signal.  The Team Leader signaled for me and indicated a chain.  I didn’t expect a chain, but was prepared.  I pulled the bolt-cutters out of my breaching bag, moved quietly up to the gate, and gave the chain a once over.  The lock was pretty fancy for this area, not something a local would have access to.  I snapped the bolt cutters through the lock, slid the door open, and stepped back for the team to flow in.  As they passed by I pocketed the lock.

clear the way.jpgSubtext: This viewpoint is from someone with a specific job: defeat doors, walls, and other obstacles.  From his viewpoint, the wall suddenly isn’t so solid.  The locked chain is not something normal.  The lock is even more unique.  This viewpoint, offers additional insight. And a feeling that perhaps there is something more to this site.

The takeaway.  When offering your reader setting information, sometimes how something is described is more important than what is being described.  Also work to make setting descriptions as unique as the people offering them.  Much like the example I offered above, each fictional character is a unique person with a unique worldview.

Here are some solid resources:

That’s it for today.  Do you have any additional ideas or concepts you could share about subtext?  I would love to hear them.  I’m always looking to add tools to the ol’ toolbox.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

16 responses

  1. Great post! I’m currently in the process of doing a first draft of a story. It’s in first person but each chapter is from the perspective of one of four characters. I’m really focusing on making sure the tone reflects the character and their perception of things so this really helped 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a challenge! The current book I’m writing is 1st person, but from a single character. It’s a eerie feeling writing in 1st person, so doing it with four characters would be pretty intense. Good luck managing the madness!

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. May the muse dance a forbidden jig infusing your fingers with power.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s crazy. I just typed up my blog for third person limited, and subtext plays a huge role in that concept. What you’ve described is exactly the coolest part about that technique. The tough part with subtext is understanding how one perspective would alter another. In your example, how likely was it that the breacher would have reported the anomaly. More interestingly, if I’m a writer stuck for ideas, what would the breaking obstacle have to be how unique would the lock have to be to give the breacher cause for alarm? Subtext isn’t just a tool for description and character building, it’s a tool for narrative because different characters are going to react to the same situation differently. This was an awesome post. I’ll be sure to link this into my post when it drops on Saturday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are mind melding obviously.

      One could write a multiple blog posts about subtext in setting, in character, and in narrative. Because these things are so intertwined, it’s hard to rip away a single component and try to explain it in 1000 words or less.

      The fact you found something useful and enjoyed the read, makes me feel like I did an okay job.

      I will keep my peepers peeled for your post to drop – I always learn new something from them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is where the credibility of the character comes into play…. do we BELIEVE that Officer Pfife is a reliable source of police procedure? If not, then the subtext changes to one about a comedy of errors instead of whatever the authors intent was. For subtext to work, the characters have to work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ol Barney’s just trying to the best he can! Training in police procedure just wasn’t the same back then, and on the small town budget? Fuhgeddaboudit!

      But your point is very valid and I agree with you. The character should come through and impact all narrative aspects they are in control of (i.e. description, setting, dialogue).

      Great point and thanks for reading and all the comments today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find that I develop only one character all the time and get so caught up that I fail to pay much attention to the others. Must make a conscious effort to try this in my next piece. Thanks for posting. Intriguing. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Third Person Limited: Goldilocks Personified – M.L.S. Weech

  6. Pingback: A Setting Writing Checklist « Quintessential Editor

Leave your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: