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Subtext and Symbolism

Today we’re going to discuss two of the tools available to us as writers that help our writing in terms of tension, clarity, and adding layers to our narrative. What I mean by tools are elements of fiction that help our readers see things differently, extract meaning in different ways, prepare them for something they don’t yet know is coming, and what characters are really talking about when they’re not talking about something. I’m talking about Subtext and Symbolism, and I think these are two great things to discuss since NaNoWriMo is almost here. So let's get started.


Subtext is the underlying meaning behind a character’s motivations, their actions, and primarily the dialogue in which they’re involved in. Subtext gives the reader information about the real why of things; it gives readers a peek behind the curtain in a way that is not explicit, but is more felt or inferred than anything else.

Subtext can be used to create tension, communicate sarcasm, for romantic flirting, to let the reader know the place in which the characters find themselves, or to communicate a certain something that the characters don’t say or want to say explicitly. It’s the connotation of what’s being said rather than the denotation, or literal meaning.

Subtext is the meaning between the lines, if you will. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the subtext is whether or not Jig, the woman in the story, should have an abortion. The word abortion is never mentioned in the story, but the “American” man who is with her at the train station is obviously trying to convince her to have one, going so far as to saying “it’s just to let the air in.” The characters side-step the topic with other talk and action, but like the hills in the distance, the topic of Jig getting an abortion is always there. I’ve included a link to Hills Like White Elephants so you can see how Hemingway does it. It’s a very short story, so it shouldn’t take you too long to read.


Symbolism is the use of items or things or “symbols” to represent ideas, themes, to avoid difficult subjects, and so on. An example of symbolism in literature is the use of water. In literature, water can symbolize life, birth, fertility, purification, hope, change, and so on. In westerns, the color black usually represents the antagonist, or that someone is bad, while the color white equals the hero, or anything that is good. An image of a blue drop in literature or any other medium, for that matter, can also symbolize water. Think of a water drop icon on a water bottle, for example.

Symbolism can be used to great effect in fiction to assign value of some sort or other to the object, whatever that object is. Symbolism can be used to define characters, to add emotion, and so on. To continue with the same example of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the “white elephants,” which are the mountains in the distance, symbolize something that no one wants; that is, the baby in Jig’s belly. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth continually washes her hands because she feels the guilt of having had Duncan killed so that Macbeth can become king. If you’ve ever seen or read the play, it’s one of the most famous and jarring examples of symbolism in literature there is, and it’s one we remember long after the play.

What’s great about symbolism is that you can assign almost anything as a symbol, depending on how you do it. Fire can symbolize destruction, but also rebirth. In “Farenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury uses fire to burn books to symbolize eliminating creativity and free thinking. In Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” the room itself symbolizes independence and privacy and the ability of women to have the time they need to do what they want rather than being subservient to the desires or needs of men. The room, in essence, symbolizes equality. The title gives it away, and you can be as explicit as Woolf is, but you don’t have to be. It’s your choice.

There are plenty of other tools we can use as writers to convey meaning and provide clarity, other than being explicit in our writing. We'll get into more of those in future posts, but for now keep on writing.

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