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Subtext or undertone is content of a book, play, musical work, film, video game, or television series 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. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters which are only covered in an aside. Subtext can also be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction, often through use of metaphor.
Subtext is content underneath the spoken dialogue. Under dialogue, there can be conflict, anger, competition, pride, showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters—what they really think and believe.
Especially in light of their inherently ambiguous and self-referential character, many authors have explicitly used subtexts (or subtexts about subtexts) in humor.
Subtext is also a frequently used method of subtly inserting social or political commentary into fiction. Subtext is often also inserted in narratives where explicit themes are unable to be shown or expressed due to censorship or simply interest in appealing to a general audience. Frequently, these subtexts may be of, but not limited to, a sexual nature or possible references to sexual orientation. Their inclusion is such so that they are easily overlooked by younger viewers but may be caught by more mature viewers. Subtext also serves to add a complexity to a premise that may superficially appeal to younger viewers but may also attract older fans, as is often the case with cartoons, sci-fi and fantasy. It also may serve to aid in suspension of disbelief.
The author David Baboulene, in his practical academic work on Story Theory — The Story Book — defines subtext as "the result of any form of gap in knowledge between any of the participants in a story; for example, between the author and a character, between two characters or between the audience and at least one character."
An example of this occurs in the 1978 movie Superman. Lois Lane has just met Clark Kent. The subtext is that she has taken an instant dislike to him. At the surface, however, their conversation seems only to solicit and supply information about the existence of others of Clark Kent's type. "Any more at home like you?" she inquires. "Uh, not really, no", Clark replies.
In the play Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, subtext is important in gaining a greater understanding of the character, as they cannot always speak freely due to the constrictions of social conventions at the time.
A scene in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, in which subtitles explain the characters' inner thoughts during an apparently innocent conversation, is an example of the subtext of a scene being made explicit.
In the episode "My Best Friend's Bottom" of the British comedy TV series Coupling, "Captain Subtext" is a tool used in the narrative to explicitly make the viewers aware of the subtextual message in the dialogue. In it, the dialogue and the subtext have been deliberately made humorous.
Television sci-fi such as the original Star Trek and Doctor Who (both of which implicitly avoided onscreen sexual situations) have often been discussed with respect to certain scenes or lines of dialogue.
In Autism and Asperger Syndrome there is an impairment or absence in understanding subtext. For example, if a person says, "This bag is really heavy," the autistic individual will not understand that the person is subtly asking for assistance. In many cases of retardation, there is impairment or absence of understanding subtext. Sarcasm is a type of subtext, some of the ill stated above cannot fully understand it, An example is, "It's hard to decide what I love more about this restaurant, the bad service, the disgusting food or the nails on chalkboard music!" Yet sarcasm can in some cases be only identified by the tone of the voice. There are some Aspergers that can identify sarcasm almost like a neurotypical person, but other kinds of subtext are invisible to them, such as understanding the motives of a person while he did a specific act, which is an impairment in the Theory of Mind.
Historians have often identified certain themes that served as subtexts during times of chaotic change or revolution. By careful use of subtext, especially such that is highly symbolic and culturally bound to a sub-group with little formal power, groups can work to instill a sense of purpose or focus to an anticipated future revolution, often without the ruling party's understanding.
Such an example of the power and controversy of subtexts might include the deliverance theme pervasive in the songs, stories, and symbols of the slaves in the United States up through the Civil Rights era and, perhaps, still today.
Others[who?] would point to the "deep river" and "looking to Canaan land" subtexts as working to pacify or fragment the slave population by focusing their attention on the afterlife, thus possibly overlooking the injustice of the present.
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- Baboulene, David (2010). The Story Book - Guidance for writers on story creation, optimisation and problem resolution (1st edition ed.). DreamEngine Media Ltd. pp. 256 pp. ISBN 978-0-9557089-2-3.
-  http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/superman_I_shoot.txt, View source lines 1718-1722.