The importance of subtext

Published on Dec 15, 2019

The balance between clear writing and subtext

When people communicate in person, we all use subtext. This means you don’t say precisely what you mean nor do you include all relevant information, but based on context and previous experience everyone you’re talking to can understand you.

When you’re writing a book, characters shouldn’t always say exactly what they mean in dialogue. They might confuse another character, leave out important information, etc. This is how humans normally communicate and you can spot boring/unbelievable dialogue in books easily if you look for issue with subtext.

I’m the type of person who tends to over communicate. After I noticed how much subtext helps my fictional characters, I decided to try using more subtext in my personal communication.

Instead of writing out every detail and reasoning for my thoughts, I put more of it into subtext:

  1. I ask myself, “what does this person need from this particular communication?” I then try to communicate only that information.
  2. Instead of spelling everything out, I intentionally leave some things open-ended, which allows the person I’m communicating with to ask a question if it’s relevant to them.
  3. I explain myself and my thoughts less. Most people don’t care for explanations and base their opinion off past experience with you regardless of what you say.

Using more subtext has made a world of difference for me. I spend less time communicating. And people actually communicate better with me even though I’m giving them less information.

I’m not advocating for everyone to use more subtext—there are people on the other end of the spectrum who would benefit from adding details and clarity.

I’ve also found that I’ll communicate more effectively and concisely for a time, but then revert back to my old ways. This is why I think it’s important to audit your own communication. It’s easy to blame imperfect communication on the other party or on circumstances. I think more often than not, the issue actually lies in the balance between clarity and subtext.

If you think you’re an over-communicator like I am, try slowly dialing back the amount of detail you include in communications; if you’re an under communicator, try adding more detail and clarity.

The perfect balance is difficult to strike and will probably always be a moving target for most people. Better communication is a worth pursuit, though. It’s something we all use multiple times per day regardless of our walk of life.

Next article - Create your own challenge network >>
If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe here.

You'll get a weekly digest of my blog posts as well as a monthly newsletter covering my current projects.

Or follow me on my social channels