and then...tenor

"...a modern concept not just of metaphor but of the nature of poetry itself."

-The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, on Tenor and Vehicle

Subtext is one of the most abused and misunderstood aspects of fiction. So here I'm going to explain one of the most useful tools of subtext in writing and the potential pitfalls and virtues thereof, that is, read on about metaphors: 

"Metaphor" and "simile" are the most common methods of subtext and also the most familiar to the layman or novice. Both metaphors and similes are comparisons in a verbal and/visual form. Verbally, (words), they have two different structures; simile has "like" or "verb+as+conjuction" while metaphor presents a direct translation:


This car is a beast.

Simile (ANY verbal comparison with "like" or "as")

This car is like a beast. OR This car acts as if it's a beast. 

You remember now, aye? 

Subtext is any instance of multiple meanings layering under a single representation. Metaphors and similes both use subtext because it puts at least two concepts underneath a single literal element. (Literal does not mean literary; it means tactile or real, as in the "literal and figurative" duality. If you're unfamiliar with it, go make a search in your dictionary and come back here). 

So the metaphors and similes have different STRUCTURES, yeah, but they both follow the same FORMULA. It's a formula used not only used in all methods of subtext; not just metaphors and similes, but visual subtext, linguistic subtext and more. This is the E=mc2 of storytelling:


Vehicle is the image used for a thought or concept. Tenor is the figurative part being represented. Atmosphere is context based on both content and formalistic (structural) decisions about sounds, words, images and etc. used in the work. This formula extends into every formal aspect of fiction and can help you identify not only every element in fiction, but subtle distinctions such as that between motifs and symbols, if you know what those are.

BUT in this post I'm only going to apply this formula to similes and metaphors, since that's all I've defined here.

Examples from Cope Syndrome:

"Alan moved like a bird with a broken wing." In this simile, the vehicle is the bird with the broken wing. While it is not literally there, it represents the tenor: Alan's movement. 

"The water was a warmth that loosened his eyes..." In this metaphor, the vehicle is warmth and the tenor is the water. 

Now, here is a pitfall: there is a risk against clarity that's dependent on the other part of the formula, that is, atmosphere. In the first example, there is a level of subtext. There is also a type of subtext by implication, for instance a bird with a "bloody wing" instead of a broken wing presents subtext by implication. A bloody wing implies that it's broken. If I compund the two instances of subtext, it can get problematic:

"Alan moved like a bird with a bloody wing." In this instance, the double subtext is confusing; the vehicle (bloody wing) does not effectively represent the tenor (Alan's movement) because they don't have the same visual quality. The only potential compensation for this is the atmosphere. If the stylistic context of Cope Syndrome had enough repetition and emphasis on the word "bloody" and bloody images as to make it a direct symbol of injury, then it could work. 

Try this:

Identify the vehicle and tenor in the following metaphors and similes, or find some examples in your favorite works. 

  • My cat is like a scribble. 
  • Her mind is an ocean.
  • This is a labrynth of paperwork.

There is a lot of subtlety in measuring atmostphere; it takes practice. And subtext takes other forms than with similes and metaphors. It can be visual, linguistic, cultural etc. And the structure of similes especially can be so variable at the be controversial. Comparisons like "he had the kinetic affect of a rabbit" don't easily fit into a box. Some of those exceptions might make a good subject for Novelism.Casebook, but it's most important to remember that practice is key. 

Now you know 

  • The structural difference between simile and metaphor
  • The Fiction Formula!
  • The role of subtext in fiction and how it can be measured
  • The potential variation of subtextual devices and the importance of their context in a work

Read and write all the time; it is the easiest and most effective way to learn. A true, though basic, understanding of subtext opens up many doors to making the fiction of your dreams. The formula is meant to reveal the nuance and formalism of the elements that you will know from experience; an essential transition in the development of any creative work.