Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Writers' Wednesday - Subtext

Today Fiona Harper talks about one of the most useful things in a writers' toolbox for creating emotion-laden scenes. It's not what you're characters say, but what they're not saying that counts!


That one four-letter word can strike fear into the heart of any man, especially when it is uttered by a seemingly calm woman doing housework, but doing it loudly.

If the woman in question turns and smiles whilst washing up, the man could possibly take her at her word. If, however, she mutters it through clenched teeth, while scrubbing hard enough to take the pattern off the china, he'd better run for cover. What she may actually saying is: "I'm really upset with you, but you're going to have to work out on your own what you've done and how to fix it."

What lies beneath
In other words, subtext is what is flowing beneath the words, and it can make dialogue seem
realistic and emotionally rich because this is the way we often speak - especially when emotion is involved, because it's a form of protection.

How could we imagine this scene progressing? Maybe the man realises what's wrong. Maybe he asks if he can take over doing the washing up ("I’m sorry. Will you talk about this with me?"). She might say yes ("Okay, I’ll give you a chance"), and hand over the brush, or she might say no and keep on scrubbing ("If you think a lousy bit of washing up is going to get you out of the doghouse, you're very much mistaken!").

While this couple are
talking about washing up, they are communicating about hurt and forgiveness.

Come on in...

Subtext is more challenging than direct dialogue for readers. We are not just telling readers what is going on (reader is passive), they are having to engage themselves in the scene to work out what’s happening (reader is active). Because they end up collaborating with the author, they will invest themselves in the story more.

When the time is right

A good time to use subtext is when emotional stakes are high. People often hide behind their words at times like these, leaving clues to what the problem is rather than coming out and saying what's on their mind. They'll test the water, hedge around the issue or ignore it altoghether. However, you don't want to use subtext all the time - too much can be exhausting for readers. When the emotional stakes are not high, when your characters aren't under pressure, or if they are with someone they trust and are intimate with, subtext often won’t be needed.

But just to turn things on their head - sometimes at moments of high emotion, your characters may well want to tell each other exactly what's on their mind. They might finally have had enough of all the game-playing. Or it might be the time when hard truths need to be heard. Both the use of subtext and the complete absence of it can lead to an emotional scene, and it's up to us to decide when it's needed.

Tips for using subtext
this is the way we talk when the emotional stakes are high, know exactly what's at stake for your characters in the scene! Know what they want.
  • Think about why your characters aren't they saying what they want to say - what's stopping them? In other words know where the conflict is coming from in your scene.
  • Think about what your characters aren't saying, full stop: If a woman rings her husband to let him know she's crashed the car because she swerved to miss a dog, and he says, "Oh, no! Did you hurt the dog?" it says a lot about the state of their relationship.
  • Once you know what’s really being communicated under the words, you can use thought (for the POV character), tone of voice, facial expression and body language to show readers what’s happening.

Fiona's upcoming release is Swept Off Her Stilettos - out in August as a Mills & boon RIVA in the UK and in September as a Harlequin Romance in North America.

A little finger isn't properly dressed without a man wrapped round it…

Clothing connoisseur Coreen Fraser's film-star style never leaves her wanting for male attention! But sourcing outfits for a 1930s murder-mystery weekend stops being fun when she discovers she has to wear a tweed suit and sensible shoes!

Meanwhile Coreen's best friend Adam Conrad has his own plans for the weekend… And one moonlit kiss later Coreen's blinkers fall from her eyes. Adam is the only man who knows the girl underneath the skyscraper heels and scarlet lipstick. But is she brave enough to invite him to kiss it off any time he likes…?


  1. Love this post Fiona... Subtext is king in my book, especially where alpha heroes are involved, because they just don't get it, and it's so much fun to make them squirm!

    Now if I could just make my teenage sons understand subtext too I wouldn't have to keep nagging them about the washing up!

    Love the sound of your new book, btw, too. And that tagline is fabulous. Still has me chuckling.

  2. I also love those thick-headed heroes that just done't get it! Such fun to write!

    And I take full credit for that tagline! (Modest, moi? Don't think so.) It started off in the text of the first chapter but ended up as a chapter sub-heading, just because I loved it so much. And because I'd wanted to use fashion-based quotes by famous people and then couldn't work out the copyright issues, so I ended up quoting my heroine instead. She wanted me to pay, though...

  3. What is really behind those words coming out of the character's mouth. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Really super post Fiona. This morning I listened to the guys in the office opposite talking through an IT problem - boy can they talk about that stuff. But try to get men to talk about how they feel and the silence can be deafening. But try to get women to talk and there's loads of it but as you so succinctly put it, the guys do have to read between the lines. Thank you for this!