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A Writer's Voice - The Meaning of Subtext

Posted by Brook on January 23, 2013 at 6:00 AM

When we think about what a writer's voice is we might immediately think of dialect which is made up of the following components:

Accent - how words are pronounced

Vocabulary - to do with the education and time period of the author/character

Grammar - to do with the education of the author/character

We might also think about the register of the text.  For more information go to this article.

What I would like to talk about today is the subtext of the words on the page.  To illustrate the meaning of subtext, I will take two well-known characters from Harry Potter, Hagrid and Rita Skeeter.

In Diagon Alley, Hagrid is with Harry in the wand shop.

"Good wand, that one.  But I suppose they snapped it in half when you got expelled?" said Mr Ollivander, suddenly stern.

"Er - yes, they did, yes," said Hagrid, shuffling his feet.  I've still got the pieces though, he added brightly.

"But you don't use them," said Mr Ollivander sharply.

"Oh, no, Sir," said Hagrid quickly.  Harry noticed he gripped his pink umbrella very tightly as he spoke.

What is the subtext of this section?  Well, we know that Hagrid has been using magic so he is lying.  Hagrid's inner thoughts might go something like this:  Yes, they did snap it in two, but that don't stop me from using it.  In fact, I haven't stopped using it since I got expelled.  Not that I'd tell you that.  The two pieces are right here in my umbrella.  I've a good mind to use them on you now!

The subtext is that Hagrid still does magic; is a rule breaker, but nonetheless trusted by Dumbledore to perform his most important tasks (such as helping Harry and transporting valuable items to Hogwarts).

The next example is Rita Skeeter

Rita uses her quick quill to publish her real thoughts (albeit exaggerated) in the Daily Prophet.  She speaks in a sweet way, but writes like a wailing banshee.

"She's doing a small piece on the Tournament for the Daily Prophet."

"Maybe not that small, Ludo," said Rita Skeeter, her eyes on Harry.


"How do you think they'd feel if they knew you were competing in the Triwizard Tournament?  Proud?  Worried?  Angry?"

Harry... could feel Rita Skeeter watching him very intently.  Frowning, he avoided her gaze and looked down at the words the quill had just written.

Tears fill those startlingly green eyes as our conversation turns to the parents he can barely remember.

"I have NOT got tears in my eyes!" said Harry loudly.

The subtext of this interview is that Rita has her own story to tell regardless of the truth about Harry.  She will make it more dramatic just to give her readers something juicy to suck.  When Dumbledore enters (the broom cupboard), she acts as though she is delighted and asks him what he thought of a previous article she wrote.

"Enchantingly nasty," said Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling.  "I particularly enjoyed your description of me as an obsolete dingbat."

The subtext here is that Rita cannot be trusted further than her two-inch crimson nails.  As she has just interviewed Harry, that can only spell bad news for him.

How do we as readers read between the lines or better still create text with sub-text?  We have to look for character actions that conflict with their words such as Hagrid clutching his umbrella or Rita gazing (hungrily) at Harry.  Text with sub-text always gives far more value than text without as it is two stories rolled into one.  When you give your text depth your readers will devour your every story.

Categories: J.K. Rowling, Voice

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