Subtext (sometimes called undertone) is content of a work which is not announced explicitly by the characters (or author) but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds. It literally means "under the text", just as if it were ideas buried under the text or dialogue of a work.
Subtext is content not included in the spoken dialogue or written word. A character's motivation may be revenge, anger, competitiveness, pride, or lust, but they're not always going to come right out and say it. Much of what the characters truly think is left implicit for the audience to understand. Creators often make use of metaphor, innuendo, and motifs to convey subtext.
Subtext is also a frequently used method of subtly inserting social or political commentary into fiction, often as a way to Get Crap Past the Radar. Sometimes these are Parental Bonus subtexts, meant to be picked up by a crowd that will understand them.
Use of subtext is generally considered to be good writing, and is a major part of Show, Don't Tell. Mind Screw works rely on subtext to convey a lot of their meaning, as it allows complexity to be layered on a work.
Subtext is present in literally every work of fiction and every human interaction. Only rarely does anyone explain the entire reasons behind their actions—and even if they do a lot of social context will still be implied.
- Discussed in Yuri!!! on Ice where the main character Yuuri and his proto-rival Yurio from Russia receive coaching lessons from living legend Victor. He designs routines for them, arrangements of the same melody inspired in aspects of The Four Loves. To push them out of their comfort zone, he assigns the "Agape" arrangement (a delicate routine designed to portray innocence) to Yurio and the "Eros" one (a very sensuous routine) to Yuuri. Yuuri spends a few days struggling with what his Eros is because he's in denial about his feelings for Victor, thinking of the folktale of a womanizer in town chasing after a paramour who does not wish to be caught. He feels stupid for blurting out that he feels passionate about pork cutlet bowls during a practice, and even Jerkass Yurio gives him a pitying look. Yuri finally nails the routine when he goes to his ballet teacher Minako for help, and decides to play the routine from the perspective of the elusive woman being chased.
- N.D. Stevenson admitted in his memoir The Fire Never Goes Out that Nimona represented his gender dysphoria and struggles with sexuality, being raised as an evangelical Christian. Indeed, at the time Nimona bore the same haircut that N.D. sported through college.
- In the Legend of Korra comics, it's mentioned that the Fire Nation used to be more tolerant towards LGBTQ relationships, with Avatar Kyoshi having relationships with both men and women through her long life. After Sozin started his campaign, he banned these relationships to go with the mandated dragon extinction, Air Nomad genocide, and colonial traumas that the Fire Nation inflicted on the world. In case you needed more reasons to hate the guy, as Korra does when she finds out about this. Korra's parents warn her that they are fine with her dating Asami, but other people may not be even if Korra can use her Avatar authority to shut them up.
- Here's a lampshaded example from Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The subtext was actually displayed on-screen with subtitles, making the awkward subtext of a typical Meet Cute part of the text.
- In Hemingway's Six-Word Story, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn", the entirety of the action takes place in the subtext.
- In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sirius mentions that because journalist Rita Skeeter is a huge liar, you have to read between the lines of her articles to filter past the lies. They usually have a grain of truth to them, and finding the grain is important if it involves the Ministry. While she's libelous and hurtful towards Hagrid, Hermione and Harry, whose only crime was refusing to give her a salacious story and calling her out for being a bully, she does report on some important news: Bertha Jorkins going missing. We know in Chapter One that Voldemort killed Bertha, so this is pretty concerning. While the Ministry hasn't covered up Bertha's disappearance, they haven't bothered looking for her because, in her boss Ludo Bagman's words, she has a bad memory and probably got lost visiting her aunt in Albania. Sirius calls bullshit; he tells Harry that Bertha was at Hogwarts when he attended with the Marauders, and he recalls her having a sharp memory. Bertha also had a big mouth, lots of nosiness and a lack of self-preservations. More than likely, Sirius theorizes, Bertha found out something important and someone must have wanted to keep her quiet, and that's why they overlooked her disappearance. He ends up being right: Crouch Sr. modified Bertha's memory when she discovered he kept his not-quite-dead Death Eater son alive and brainwashed under the Imperious Curse, because she was stupid enough to confront him about it. It was so bad that, according to Crouch Jr., it damaged her memory permanently. Pettigrew was able to take advantage of Bertha's brain damage and nosiness on seeing him alive in Albania to capture her and deliver her to Voldemort. Voldemort tortured Bertha and broke the memory charm on her; he laughs cruelly and says while she was conscious enough to have another Memory Charm placed on her, she was too much of a liability so he killed her.
- Part of the reason why Lolita is contentious is because of this; while on the surface it's a story about an accused murderer trying to write his memoirs before he dies in prison, it's actually about a predator destroying a little girl's life. Humbert von Humbert is charming in prose who claims that Lolita ruined his life with her seductions, but you can read between the lines and see that no, actually his twelve-year old stepdaughter Dolores was not okay with the sole authority figure and parent depriving her of the stability she used to have when her mother Charlotte was alive and raping her on a regular basis. Heck, her Affectionate Nickname is Dolly, which is more than appropriate for a little girl, and it's Humbert that changes the nickname to Lolita. She demands to call her mother after their first sexual encounter, and is horrified to find out that Charlotte died shortly before Humbert picked her up from summer camp. In her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi notes that at the camp in question, Humbert notices either a still-living butterfly or moth pinned to the wall in the office, struggling to stay alive; it represents what Dolores will become while under her stepfather's thumb. Even as an adult, to emphasize how creepy his actions were, she refers to him as "Dad," not "Humbert".
- Xena: Warrior Princess was famous for having a Lesbian Subtext involving romantic attraction between Xena, the protagonist, and Gabrielle, the sidekick. But that's why not why this is listed here. In Xena fandom circles, the word "subtext" was so strongly associated that it is used to refer to only that particular pairing.
- In Fresh off the Boat, it's parodied. Jessica and her sister Connie are passive-aggressive towards each other, after spending a lifetime fighting for their mother's favoritism. While they may compliment each other, the subtitles translate each phrase as insults. The opposite happens when they trade insults at the end of the episode introducing this, and the subtitles reveal how much they love each other.
- The incest subtext of Wizards of Waverly Place is so prominent that it has its own page here. In short, the relationship between brother and sister Justin and Alex Russo was fraught with cues and comments that were unusually flirty or even romantic at times, to the point that "Jalex" became the number-one Shipping pair among the show's fans. The show's production team denied this was intentional, and was entirely due to the fandom reading more into the characters than was actually there (no doubt because this was, after all, a Disney Channel show). Even so, incidents and exchanges reinforcing the perception that the siblings had somewhat more than sibling-like feelings for each other seemed to grow in number and blatancy as the series progressed. (It didn't help that the actor and actress -- David Henrie and Selena Gomez -- were actually romantically involved for much of the series.)
- Kim Possible implies but doesn't outright confirm that Kim and Shego flirt with each other while fighting. Shego affectionately calls her "Kimmy" and they showed sympathy towards each when both were fighting and sneezing from the common cold. The only time that Kim fought Shego to kill rather than disarm or capture was when Shego and Dr. Drakken created an android to seduce Kim and capture her in So the Drama, and Kim took it personally once Ron snapped her out of her Heroic BSOD. Heck, when a machine briefly made Shego good, she and Kim became very close after the latter took a job as a substitute teacher at Kim's school. The episode ends with Shego burning the photos the two had once restored to normal.
- Steven Universe
- Gems are manifestations of light that can shapeshift their forms and identify as female. While in theory they can use their identities, in actuality the Diamond Authority maintains a tight grip over the individuals so they conform to a whole. Indeed, when the Diamonds find out about Pink Diamond becoming Rose Quartz and giving birth to Steven, they have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that Steven is not their long-lost sister, using "she" pronouns and acting like things will be the same as they were several thousand years ago. Steven lampshades that because Gems don't know what moms and parents are, it's complicated to explain what actually happened.
- Fusion is shown as the concrete representation of a relationship; the Diamond Authority mandates that Gems can only fuse with like Gems as a means to fight in armies. It's shown that the strongest fusions are made of intense emotions, like love in the case of Garnet and Stevonnie, or loathing in the case of Malachite. For this reason, Garnet teaches Stevonnie a meditation when they start suffering trauma-induced hallucinations during combat training.
- The true story of what happened with Rose Quartz aka Pink Diamond. Even though Pink's sisters Blue and Yellow and their mother-figure White loved Pink, they treated her as a joke and a court jester. As a result, she becomes spoiled and demanding, taking out her frustrations on her Pearl and later Spinel by abandoning the latter in a distant moon garden. Pink felt stifled by this attitude, how she had to conform to rules without having the chance to explore who she really was. When she shapeshifted into a Rose Quartz to explore her new colony, and later saw Garnet fuse during her initial attempts to protect the planet from colonization, it struck her that Earth was a place where you could be who you wanted to be.
- In-universe, Peridot explains the subtext to Steven after he gets her hooked on Camp Pining Hearts, arguing that Percy and Pierre are the ultimate power couple even if canon doesn't confirm it. According to the flashback, she explained it for several hours. Steven fell asleep, while Garnet peeked in and gave Peridot a thumbs-up for her analysis.
- Ben 10, in a similar case to the sister-brother relationship of Wizards of Waverly Place, Ben and Gwen Tennyson's relationship often came out, well, not like relatives should behave in the United States. Word of God confirms Gwen was not intended to be Ben's cousin at the planning stage and his love interest, but all the subtext was left as she turned into his cousin since it was impossible to justify her presence on the road trip which starts the series. Despite the incest, the pairing it is the most popular even after sequel series paired Ben and Gwen with other characters. It also helps in most countries outside the United States Kissing Cousins is considered unusual but not a taboo.