How to Create Subtext by Letting Your Readers Fill in the Blanks

As I discussed in a recent post (“Why Your Reader Is Your Co-Writer”), the best authors understand how to sketch their stories with just enough detail to let readers see the scene, while still leaving room for readers to fill in the blanks. The trick for how to create subtext with just the right balance of rich detail tricky. But when you pull it off, you get readers to invest themselves in your stories, rather than just allowing them to be passive observers.

About a quarter of the way through Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, we find a perfect example of how to create subtext by developing a scene so readers are able to read into it as much as they take out.

This particular scene involves the greenhorn narrator walking down Wall Street for the first time and observing the passing people. He sees several men with leather pouches strapped to their wrists and immediately decides the pouches are filled with millions of dollars.

By filtering the scene through the narrator’s eyes, Ellison does a beautiful job of showing readers what’s to be seen, but by restraining himself to the narrator’s point of view—and no more—he also leaves room for readers to interpret the scene both inside and outside of the narrator’s opinions. Readers, of course, will realize the leather pouches don’t hold the fantasized millions, but by seeing New York City’s strange bustle through the eyes of a young man straight from the country, we learn new things about both the reality and the perception of the setting—and the reality and perception of the narrator.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s your greatest challenge for how to create subtext in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I have gotten better at this. Especially during revisions. In the first draft I put everything in. In revsions I take most of it back out.

  2. Interesting post. In my drive to minimalism I often leave too much out and my beta reader says she has no idea what’s going on….

  3. I’m with Chris; I tend to leave out. It’s a hard line to follow: just enough but not too much.

  4. @Anne: I find it easier to put in too much in the first draft, then take out what’s extraneous, rather than other way around.

    @Christopher: It’s a happy balance. In a book I wrote a few years ago, I ended up with a very minimalistic first draft (despite a huge word count), and I had to go back and flesh it out. Definitely not as much fun as putting in everything the first time around.

    @Mshatch: It can be an *extremely* hard line to follow – if only because we’re hardly ever objective about our own work. Often, we need the objective eyes of a beta reader or editor to tell us where we’ve included too much detail – or too little.

  5. I think I’m getting better at this. I think. If my critter tells me otherwise, then I’ll know I’m not. 😉

  6. Gotta listen to those critters! 😉

  7. I haven’t had that kind of feedback from my readers, so I’m not sure where exactly I am at. But I do try to give enough detail to be interesting, without boring the reader.

  8. In many instances, the trick to finding the right balance between not enough/too much information is staying true to the narrator’s POV – even when his POV demands presenting conclusions that appear wrong. Readers don’t want the author to step in and explain that the narrator is mistaken and/or the author doesn’t actually agree with the narrator’s opinions. Readers want to see the story as the narrator sees it and then have the freedom to draw their own conclusions.

  9. The problem I run into is when I have a quasi-omniscient third-person describing the scene, at which point it feels almost like cheating to leave huge gaps open for interpretation. Or in some cases I’ll present the scene in a subjective manner that presumes a character’s limited POV rather than any sort of omniscience. Which seems to be fine for some, but others have taken issue with it.

  10. Omniscient POVs are on the outs now days. Not that they’re wrong or that they’re less effective than limited POVs, but they’re just not done as frequently. The challenges of an omniscient POV are completely different from limited, but it’s still absolutely possible to let readers fill in the blanks. Hemingway was a master of bringing the reader in as a co-writer on his omniscient POVed stories.

  11. Thanks for inviting me to check out your blog! I love it! I’m following via Google Friend Connect 🙂

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Gwendolyn! I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.

  13. I’ve always thought this is one of the most important — and challenging — things a writer needs to do.

  14. Definitely. Seems like the more important something is, the more difficult it is! Just the way it works.

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