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Suspects and Subtext

man looking skeptical

Keep Your Sleuth Guessing with Subtext

A mystery novel creates a puzzle for your reader. Your reader follows the protagonist sleuth through the puzzle-solving discovery to get to the villain. 

Suspects are the lifeblood of your mystery. Without them, your mystery sleuth would have no challenges and solve the mystery in an instant. While evidence, clues, and red herrings help your reader keep guessing, the suspects provide personal interaction with your sleuth. That interaction is the story world that keeps your reader turning pages.

Your challenge as a mystery writer is to create characters that challenge your sleuth. Your detective must track down, examine, and determine each suspect’s relationship to the victim. Each interaction with a suspect drives your sleuth—and your reader—toward the ultimate solution.

Mystery writers have an opportunity to confound the reader and sleuth in the dialogue between the suspects and the sleuth. Because suspects, just like people, don’t always mean what they say.

Subtext And Suspect Characters

Suspicious suspects have secrets. Some of those secrets may be related to the murder and some not. And those suspects have lies they tell to hide the secrets. 

And this is where you can use subtext to your advantage as a storyteller. Because subtext is any content 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 story unfolds.

One phrase or sentence can either send your sleuth on a wild goose chase or reveal an intent. As your suspect speaks use actions to reinforce their spoken word, reveal unintended subtext, or negate the spoken word.

Allow your suspect to reveal certain emotions or feelings and hide others. In other words, they don’t tell the whole story. That is how subtext works. Only later in your story does your sleuth and your reader understand that the suspect was not telling all. 

You can foreshadow the complete understanding by contrasting what a character says and their action. A character says one thing, but their body language says just the opposite.

Writer Joe Bunting in an article on subtext suggests that the best way to create subtext is with details. In dialogue, the details are speech patterns, inflections, facial expressions, and body language are details that bring the words your character speaks to life.

Tips to Introduce Subtext

Subtext is the opposite of saying what you mean. To write subtext, you need to explore ways for a suspect to not say what they mean. 

  1. Check Your Dialogue. Review each scene where your sleuth interviews a suspect. Then look at what your suspect says. If your suspect says something that is exactly what they mean, think of a way to come up with a way for them to say the same thing without saying it. Come at it sideways. Say the opposite. Imply with body language.
  2. Change Meaning In the Story. Bring the dialogue full circle as the story progresses. The suspect says something early on and it seems to be spot on, then later in the story they say the same thing and the meaning changes. The first time you write the dialogue, the reader can take it at face value, but later in the story the exact same language the meaning expands, because your sleuth and the reader know more about the character’s intentions.
  3. Switch from Obvious. When your sleuth asks a question expecting an obvious answer, create an unexpected answer from the suspect. Review your dialogue passages. Look for places where you can create an answer that is not obvious.

The Unobvious Suspect

Use subtext to build mystification for your reader. Give your suspects a reason to not reveal everything. Then create dialogue that hides intent, cloaks meaning, and elicits the unexpected. Your sleuth and your reader will work harder to solve the puzzle. 

Photo by Nojan Namdar on Unsplash

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