Monday, May 11, 2015

Ways to Use Subtext

Missy and her mom in honor of Mother's Day

Ways to Use Subtext

Missy Tippens

I’ve always considered subtext to be the thoughts in a character’s head while he/she is saying something else. Which can be fun to read. But after digging through a couple of my how-to books, I’ve learned that subtext is much more.  And I’ll only have the space to touch on it a bit today.

First, let me list the two reference books I used for this post:

Morrell quotes Linda Seger (Unforgettable Characters) as saying subtext is “what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines.” If you think about how people relate to each other, this happens because:
  --they (hopefully!) act polite even if their thoughts aren’t polite
  --they sometimes can’t bring themselves to say what they mean or feel
  --they aren’t ready to acknowledge their true feelings

This can be really useful in working with our characters. Morrell suggests using subtext in places where our characters are in denial or feeling confused or vulnerable. You can do this with dialogue and internal thoughts. Also with actions. And subtext can inform scene choices.

One thing that’s important to remember is that often the character won’t understand herself or be ready to admit feelings, yet the reader will know! So it’s fun for the reader to watch her in denial. Or it makes the reader cheer her on, hoping she’ll figure it out soon. This is especially useful in romance novels.

This technique is also a great way to create humor. It can be funny to watch a hero smile and nod while inside he’s about to grind his teeth to dust. Or to see his fear when he realizes he’s falling in love, yet he’s still acting as if everything is the same as always.

So use subtext to tell your story in a layer deeper than just what the character says or does. Let the reader inside to know the true story.

In Story Physics, Brooks talks about subtext a little differently. He says: “In fiction, subtext is the offspring of setting, characterization, backstory, and dramatic exposition.” Then he goes on to say, “…subtext is always available as a layer to make your story richer, deeper, and more compelling.”

I found it interesting that Brooks talks about subtext as pretty much anything that informs the story, such as social values of your characters, the time period you set it in, and the place where you set it. He says, “Subtext is the universe within which your story unfolds.”

Some examples to help you think about subtext in this way: Brooks shares the example of the movie Witness, set in the Amish belief system. He also uses the example of The Help, set within the prejudice and social norms of the day. But subtext can be more than religious or social barriers.

Brooks goes on to talk about theme in relation to subtext. He says: “Subtext often equates to and facilitates theme.” But I won’t have time to go into that in this post. I may actually do a Part 2 down the road.

Still, I hope I’ve given you a taste of how to use subtext. I’d love to hear how you use it or have seen it used.

Today, I’ll be giving away two copies (e-book or print) of my new release from Love Inspired, The Doctor’s Second Chance. Please let me know in the comments if you’d like to be entered! Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.

The Bachelor's Baby 
Jake West's troubled cousin leaves him with a most unusual parting gift—her newborn baby girl! And now the small-town contractor is forced to seek help from the very woman he resents—the new big-city pediatrician who practically stole his uncle's practice, Violet Crenshaw. Violet knows she shouldn't be consorting with the enemy. But she can't resist the adorable baby and her handsome new caretaker. Violet traded her chance at motherhood for her career years ago. But raising a family with Jake could be everything she's ever wanted.
4 Stars from RT Book Reviews Magazine


  1. I just finished reading Leslie Gould's novel Amish Promises, and yes, it was the subtext (both as the setting, as well as characters thoughts) that added humour and insight to the story. Yes, Missy, I'd love your newest book. Thanks! Great post.

  2. Marianne, you were probably reading as I added photos to my post. LOL I was running late posting it due to a crazy weekend!

    Thanks for sharing about Amish Promises!

  3. Great post, Missy. Nice clear way of explaining it.

    Congrats on the new book! I have it already. I ordered it directly from Harlequin and it arrived last Friday. Now it's on the dreaded TBR stack. Dreaded because I'm afraid the stack is getting too tall and will soon become a collapsing risk, lol. Need to pick up the speed of writing AND reading!

  4. PS, LOVELY photo of you and your Mom! What a nice keepsake!

  5. Lyndee, I TOTALLY understand the dreaded part of the TBR pile!! And now, my iPad is getting overloaded as well. :)

    Thanks for getting my book! And thanks on the photo. Whoever took it, caught us laughing at something.

  6. I will be paying more attention to subtext in my reading and writing.
    Thanks Missy.
    I would love to read your new book.

  7. Oh -- I'm with Marianne - just finished reading Amish Promises by Leslie Gould as well and it's rich in subtext. And dare I say I've never heard the term before? So you've totally educated me today. Great way to start the week!!!!!

  8. Whoa! More craft books for me to order.Thank you, Missy.

    Subtext = Jane Austen.

    Missy, you look just like your mom. What did you do to your finger?

  9. Good morning, Missy. Very interesting post. I imagine some stories lend themselves more easily to subtext (ie Amish), but what an intriguing challenge to consider what the appropriate subtext of your story is (or should be) when it's less obvious.

    Thanks for giving me something to mull over on a dreary Monday morning.

  10. Thanks for the post, Missy. I've never really thought about subtext. Guess I'll be adding two new craft books to my wish list. :)

  11. Mary Cline, it's good to see you this morning! I've got you entered.

  12. Kav, I'm glad I offered up something new for you! :) Hope you have fun with it.

  13. Tina, Jane Austen novels was the first example Jessica Morrell used in her book! The second on her list was the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich.

  14. Mary Curry, yes it does seem like some settings lend themselves more to using subtext. One of the books (can't remember which one, now) particularly mentioned romance novels lending themselves well.

  15. Rhonda, I hope you find the books helpful! They're PACKED full of info. I have to digest just a little at a time. In fact, I've barely scratched the surface on them.

  16. Hi Missy,
    Great shot of you and your Mom, what I wouldn't give to spend one more afternoon with mine.

    Such a cute cover on The Doctors Second Chance, please enter me :)

  17. Hi Missy,

    Great post. Just the word physics makes me shudder. You don't know how hard I worked to pass two college physics classes.

    I love the cover of your new book. Congratulations!

    I hope you all had a great mother's day.

  18. Missy, thanks for emphasizing the importance of subtext and the wealth of ways to show what's really going on with our characters and the world they live in. What's going on between the spoken lines makes writing dialogue fun.

    I'm with Jackie. The word Physics in the How To book title added an element of dread. I suspect it made you buy the book, Missy.


  19. Missy, you and your mom look so much alike! Personality ooze out of both of you!


  20. Hi Missy!

    I think the subtext helps round out a character and makes them more believable. I've never known the term before, but I recognize the description of what I tend to look for in the books I read.

    The cover on your book is adorable. Please toss my name in to win a copy.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  21. Missy - Now I know where I get your cute sweet smile - your mom has one just like it. Thanks for the sub text info. Your book is in TBR (soon as I get done with my Carol awards books) Can't wait!

  22. Missy, I love the photo of you and your mom! You look so much alike! :-)

    This is a good subject. I'd never thought about putting a name to it. I hope it's what I'm thinking it is. Does subtext = thoughts?

    I like reading the characters thoughts between the lines.

    Would love to win a copy of your book. :-)

  23. I don't know if I use subtext or not. I'll have to go back to see.

    I can see where this is a great tool to get deeper pov though.

    Love your book cover!

  24. Missy, I'm going to have to study those books. I don't consider myself very good at subtext. I guess that's what I'll be looking for as I read. :) You've given me some good thoughts to ponder. I guess I'd best drink my coffee now so I have enough brain cells to think about. :)

    I love the pic of you with your mom. You both look so young!

  25. I added both books to my wish list. I'm looking forward to reading your book. I'm hoping to get my computer back tonight. The hard drive had to be formated.

  26. Very interesting, Missy! I remember reading a craft book several years ago that discussed subtext, and from what I recall, it was more along the lines of your first example, the unspoken thoughts and feelings that might be in contradiction to what is actually said in dialogue.

    I think the hard part is using subtext naturally, in a way that doesn't come across as telling rather than showing. We want so much to make sure the reader gets it that the temptation is to over-explain.

  27. Tracey, I'm so thankful for my mom. She and my dad live 6 hours away, so I don't get to see them very often. However, I'm trying to make time to go home more often.

  28. Jackie, like Janet said, I was drawn to the book because I love physics. I was a biophysics minor, and my son is a physics major right now. He got a real kick last week when I sent him a photo of the book cover and told him I was studying physics, too. :)

    Janet, I remember your horror stories of physics! I should have given you a warning about today's post. LOL

  29. Missy, terrific post! Really great screenwriters have always paid attention to subtext. Released in 1976, a fun romantic comedy titled Silver Streak has a wonderful example of subtext in dialogue between Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh. In a romantic scene between the two, their whole conversation revolves around the topic of nasturtiums, but what they are really talking about It's all in the subtext though.

    Congrats on your new book!

  30. Cindy W, I think you're right. It helps to know the character's thoughts while the dialogue may be something totally different. It adds a layer that's deeper so we know the character better.

    Thanks on the cover! LI did a great job with it, making it look just like the scene I described.

  31. Cindy R, thank you! Would you believe I actually have more of my dad's smile? But everything else looks like my mom. My little girl photos look just like her young photos.

  32. Mary Hicks, the subtext = thoughts is one way of using subtext. But it's also the thoughts that go along with dialogue (and my contrast with the dialogue). And it's also the world the story takes place in, everything that informs the characters and the plot.

    I wish I'd had time to use some examples. But I ran out of time when it came to actually writing the post. Next time I need to spend less time reading fun how-to books! :)

  33. Connie, you'll have to let us know what you find! :)

    Thanks on the cover. I love it, too!

  34. COFFEE!!! Jeanne, you just reminded me I didn't bring coffee!

    Okay, coffee's on, everyone! With Italian Sweet Cream creamer.

    Jeanne, thanks for the compliment. This is where i should probably admit that photo was take in 2011. :) It's one of my favs. It's hard to find photos of my mom because she always avoids cameras. :)

  35. Wilani, I'm so sorry about the computer troubles. My Macbook Pro is from 2010, and I'm starting to feel anxious about it's age. Sure hope it'll see me through another year or two.

  36. Myra, that's such a good point!! We don't want to use it like this:

    "I'm glad you're home, Myra." But she said that even though she wasn't glad Myra was home. She was mad that Myra had returned.

    NO. DO NOT DO THAT! :)

    In fact, subtext is in the chapter on SUBTLETY in Between the Lines. So use it carefully. :)

  37. Barbara, thanks for sharing an example! We can look up that movie. In fact, I think maybe I've seen that. My mom usually has on Tuner Movie Classics when I'm there visiting. :)

  38. I just remembered Tina asked about my finger! That happened a few years ago. It was the Christmas Eve when I cut my finger pretty badly right before I had to hurry to church to sing. I'm not squeamish, but that one almost made me keel over. It was a new knife and very (way too) sharp for how casually I handle knives.

    Do NOT get too familiar with your knives and then buy a new one! LOL

  39. Hi Missy:

    Thanks for your happy mother's day photo. I so enjoyed seeing all the many video clips this weekend of baseball players and NASCAR drivers saying how wonderful their mothers are and then showing their photos side by side and how much alike they looked. Each was like a little HEA experience!

    I must say you have a post here that just warms the heart of the language philosopher within me. : )

    I think many people use the term "subtext" to mean what is usually meant as "context". They may also use it to refer to word connotations. I feel this trend is sad and hate to see another word become so generalized that its original meaning has lost its specificity.

    I see 'subtext' quite literally as the text that lies below the written text. As Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote:

    “The text has disappeared under the interpretation.”

    In Nietzsche's sense the written text disappeares as the reader applies his own interpretation as to what the statement means.

    Text is what we say.
    Subtext is what we mean.

    Sometimes people object to subtext (like husbands) and thus we have the dictum:

    "Say what you mean and mean what you say".

    It is funny this topic should come up today. Last night I just finished reading Ruth's "Healing the Lawyman's Heart" (maybe her best book yet) and I remember noticing very interesting subtext passages as I was reading it. Unfortunately it would be very hard to go back now and find those passages because the subtext is not there on the page! It's in the reader's head!

    Perhaps I can use some supra-text (viewing a statement from above and looking down on all its various meanings) to demonstrate what I so liked in Ruth's subtext

    The hero is saying some very nice things about what he 'loves' (Note the 'L' word men don't like to use) and admires in a given situation. But what he is really doing (subtext) is saying these things because they also express how he feels about the heroine. The hero is saying these things to gage the heroine's instantaneous reactions to his words and to do the preparatory work for the time when he says them directly to her. (He's a lawman and he knows that how a person initially reacts to a question often gives away their true feelings -- even though these first reactions may only take a few milliseconds before the person puts on their 'to-the-world' face.)

    What makes these passages even more delicious is the fact that, at the same time, the heroine is wondering if he could be really expressing his feelings about her and not just the situation. (She also wonders if she would welcome the hero saying these things about her or not. Is she ready for love?) Like I said: this is just delicious.

    Subtext can be wonderfully enriching for the reader to enjoy. I think the experience is a little like when you can see the second painting hidden in the outward painting as you can in some of Bev Doolittle's artworks.!=W&ID=13251

    Oy vey! This is way TMI!

    BTW: I have, "The Doctor's Second Chance," which may well be your best yet. Reviews are up on Amazon, B&N, and The Christian Bookstore. The spirit really moved me with this story. I think everyone should read it! : )


  40. Vince, I should have gotten you to help me write the post! Excellent input. Yes, subtext is what the character means--which is informed by everything in his/her backstory and story world.

    I can't wait to read Ruthy's new book! I'm glad you mentioned it. We can all read while thinking about subtext as we go. :)

    Thanks for your sweet comment on my new story. You just made my day. :)

  41. Missy's injured finger. The hidden subtext in the picture... :)

    Maybe she cut it in the kitchen while helping her mother cook Thanksgiving dinner and even though it's throbbing, she doesn't want her mom to worry, so she hides her pain behind a bright, cheerful smile.

    That, my dears, is subtext. lol

  42. Enjoyed this post plus comments Missy. Another way to layer in richness in our writing (or explain why we particularly enjoy a book).

    I've always pictured subtext as sort of like those old "Joe Isuzu" commercials where he made outrageous/embellishing comments and text came on screen to tell the viewer the actual truth.

    A few of us animators considered creating a character in a series who would always be carrying a coffee cup around. Whenever he would talk, the coffee mug's words would change to tell other what the character REALLY meant (and then switch back to the benign coffee mug text if the character looked at it).

    That's been my understanding of subtext for quite some time. Will have to look into it some more. Thanks for posting about subtext, Missy.

    I just finished Tina's Safe in the Fireman's Arms. WOW!!! Must get a review posted because I really, really (to the power of infinity) liked that story. I may be biased because I'm a Colorado native, but it was a great mom's day weekend read.

  43. p.p.s
    That's a great photo of you and your mom, Missy. Brought a smile to my face. Aren't moms awesome?!?

  44. DebH, what a fun cartoon element!! I love the idea. :) :)

    Can't wait to read Tina's book as well!!

  45. Hey, Missy, whenever I learn something I didn't know, I consider that a GREAT POST, my friend, and you did that today.

    I knew subtext could be dialogue and internal thoughts that provide more insight into a character's personality or situation, but I didn't full realize it could also be actions.

    Then you also said: "I found it interesting that Brooks talks about subtext as pretty much anything that informs the story, such as social values of your characters, the time period you set it in, and the place where you set it."

    WOW, I really had no idea, so thanks for educating me, Missy. The learning just never stops, I guess. :)


  46. Missy, you said: "Brooks goes on to talk about theme in relation to subtext. He says: “Subtext often equates to and facilitates theme.” But I won’t have time to go into that in this post. I may actually do a Part 2 down the road."

    WOW, then I suppose the location of my new Isle of Hope Series -- Isle of Hope, GA -- could be considered subtext since it is about hope restored, yes?


  47. Julie, I'm glad you found it helpful!

    Yes, I think your setting could definitely affect your story--being isolated on an island, any history of the past of that island, the feel of the community (is it exclusive--having residents and outsiders??). All that would affect how your characters relate to the island and to each other. You can really have fun with it!

  48. Missy, thanks for this post. It is interesting to consider subtext as I work on editing....layering in a character's denial or confusion. My hero thinks he wants to return to his big city career, but feels responsible for doing the right thing for his small town family. I'll see how I can use subtext for his situation.

    Congratulations on your 4-star RT review and your son's engagement! The Doctor's Second Chance is on the top of my TBR pile. Lovely picture of you and your mom!

  49. Very interesting post, Missy. I have never heard the term subtext before so this is informative. I will have to remember those craft books. Please enter me in the drawing.

  50. Missy, great topic and great blog! Thanks for bringing more meaning to Subtext!

    I'm in the final stages of a book that's due FRI. Hoping to layer a bit of that subtext into my story.

    Thanks for the tips!

  51. Missy Tippens said... I found it interesting that Brooks talks about subtext as pretty much anything that informs the story.

    A thought-provoking post, Missy. As a reader, I enjoy the depth that subtext provides. I enjoy it in dialogue but there can be great under-the-surface conflict using subtext. The way I like subtext the best, though, is when I realize I know something about some aspect of a story but the writer never wrote that detail. I absorbed it from the subtext. One thing about it, stories with good subtext take a lot more concentration to read :-)

    Cute photo!

    Nancy C

  52. Thanks, Sherida! We're excited about the engagement! They're looking at dates now for a wedding next summer. :)

    Enjoy the book!

  53. Sandy, I've got you entered!

    Debby, good luck finishing!! Deadline time is crazy. I'm sure you're frazzled about now!

  54. Nancy C, thanks for your take on the subject. It makes me want to study more and to learn how to use this well.

  55. Very interesting post, Missy - - thanks for sharing.
    Love the sweet photo of you and your Mom - - treasure moments with her (as I'm sure you do).
    Love the cover of your new book - - anything that features a baby really "grabs" me - - so cute.
    No need to enter me in the drawing, because I plan on purchasing your book (I only read print copies - - yes, a bit old-fashioned, LOL).
    Hugs, Patti Jo :)

  56. Thanks, Patti Jo! Yes, I treasure the time I do have with them.

  57. Missy, great picture of you and your mother!

    Subtext is the most interesting part of most books, IMHO since it holds the real meaning of the story.

    Sometimes don't you wish you knew what was going on in someone's mind when they're talking but you know they don't mean what they're saying? Maybe it's better we don't know.

  58. I think of subtext as all the little elements of a story an author uses to create the desired aura of a certain scene or the whole story.

    Great post, Missy! Gets me thinking about how to use this more often. Will be looking forward to a part II!

  59. Cara, I have a feeling if we could hear those thoughts, we might end up wishing we couldn't! hahaha

  60. Natalie, I hope you have lots of great ideas! Have fun playing with it.

  61. Dear Missy, Thanks for the post about subtext. I think some places where there aren't subtext may be a good example: Facebook, e-mails, and texts. You can't see anyone's eye rolls or smiles or aww faces when they read your posts and by the same token, you can't hear the person's inflections or tone of voice as they type.

    I loved the movie Silver Streak when I was a kid (I now own the DVD and remembered the funny scenes and showed it to my then 9 year old son and I was blushing).

    Someone mentioned Janet Evanovich. I just listened to Top Secret 21 (in the car without kids) and it is different listening to an audiobook than reading the book.

    Lots to think about. Thanks, Missy.

  62. Tanya, that's so true about texts and emails! It's tough to get that subtext. I think that's why I write so many smiley faces. :)

  63. Thanks for this post, Missy.

    Turns out, I may not know what subtext is.

    Let's just pretend I do, though, huh????

  64. Hey Missy, I'm back again. I was just looking at the RWA workshop schedule and realized they are doing one on subtext.

    Subtext: Not Just Another Buzzword (CRAFT)
    Speaker: Sherry Thomas
    What is subtext, and why is it so important? Come discover advanced techniques for avoiding on-the-nose writing, and learn to create stories with subtle, but compelling, depth.

  65. Love the picture of you and your Mom! So precious!
    Thanks for this information on subtext and for the book references. I'll be adding those to the mile-high stack of books to be read!

    I'm so far behind in reading books - but I just finished "The Guy Next Door" and loved it!

    Please enter my name in the drawing for your new book!

  66. Mary, I bet if I go read a passage in one of your books right now that you have it. You just don't know you do! :)

  67. Mary Curry, how cool!! I'll have to be sure to attend that. :)

  68. I love the picture of you with your mom. Great article.
    Your new book looks great. I would love to win one.
    Becky Boerner

  69. Edwina, thanks for reading! I'm glad you liked The Guy Next Door. :)

  70. Thanks, Becky! I've got you entered.

  71. I hadn't really thought about subtext, but this gives me some things to think about. I do think that some of the context is being called subtext. When Cara mentioned about being able to hear what everyone was thinking, it made me think of the movie "What Women Want".

    Please put me in for a copy of your book.

  72. Thanks for stopping by, Becky! Yeah, maybe the word context is good for some of it as well.

  73. Thanks for the great sub-text tips, Missy! I would LOVE to win your book!