Deborah Halverson recently joined me and my students over a Chat on writing young adult novels. She concluded the Chat with some advice on revision that came just as I was in the midst of revising my upper middle grade novel, Lara’s Gift, for my editor at Knopf. Because subtext isn’t something that I consciously think about as I write, Deborah’s parting words made me reflect on my own writing:

Looking for ways to revise a YA fiction manuscript that someone has called “flat”?

Serve up some subtext.

Subtext refers to what’s going on behind the spoken words. When your narrative beat (the bit of exposition that separates two snippets of dialogue) offers action that directly undermines or contradicts what’s being said in the dialogue, the reality behind the words is the subtext. Creating subtext is a rich and wonderfully teasing way to tell a story. It puts readers “in the know” while leaving the characters totally clueless.

What young person doesn’t love knowing more than everyone else? Subtext is a great way to give your YA fiction depth. It’s also a good way to hook young readers. When kids clue in to those contradictions, they start 1) questioning, which means they are interacting with the text. Good. 2) realizing, which means they’re probably feeling pretty darned clever. Great. 3) anticipating, which means they’re acting on that extra knowledge of theirs to guess at the next plot development . . . which is further interaction with the story. Huzzah! When you can get a young reader to interact with your story, you’ve hooked her.

Ways to create subtext in your story include contradicting spoken words with body language, contradicting a character’s perception of a setting with the realities of that setting, and contradicting one more obvious meaning with a second less obvious—and wholly opposite—one. Contradictions throw motives into question, inject undertones of secretiveness and deceit or fear and hesitation, help flaw main characters, and lay the groundwork for rewarding revelations. The end result is a YA story with more depth—both emotional and intellectual—and a plot with more complexity.

Thanks for your insight on subtext and for making me think about my own writing, Deborah. For her original post and specific examples on subtext, click here.

What worthy examples of published subtext can you think of? How about in your own writing?

I’d love to hear from you!