Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Subtext: What really lies beneath the surface?

Blogger's Note: A few weeks ago, Renee Ryan and I got on the subject of subtext. The way she put it was so right on and so much better than I could recount second hand, I suggested she write an article. Guess what? She did. Please welcome the very generous and gifted Renee Ryan to the Five Scribes ~ Donnell

I first started thinking about subtext several years ago. It began when I was critiquing a friend's manuscript because she had received an extensive revision letter from an acquiring editor but no contract. My friend asked me to take a look at her final manuscript. Although an incredibly hardworking woman, this particular writer was one of the most negative people I had ever met. As I started reading her manuscript -- a supposedly light-hearted short contemporary romance -- something felt "off" about the story. I had no idea what. The writing was stellar. The plotting was airtight, the premise perfect for the targeted line. So, what was wrong? Why did I keep putting down the manuscript with a sense of nausea in my stomach? About halfway through the story it hit me at last. Her negativity was coming through on the pages. Not in the story itself, but in the subtext. As I read page after page, I kept getting a sense that the heroine would never find happiness no matter how the writer wrote the ending. That manuscript never sold. That author is still unpublished and, sadly, still one of the most negative women I know.

They say we should write what we know. I say we write who we are. A miserable person will have a miserable subtext if not checked. Conversely, a confident person will write with an unspoken confidence that shines through on the pages.

Not with me on this? Fast forward several years after the above incident. Another friend. Another manuscript. Another problem with subtext. Again, I was reading a manuscript that left me feeling -- ick. Again, I couldn't put my finger on the problem. All I knew was that this friend was in the middle of a nasty divorce. Her anger and misery were coming out on the pages, even though her characters were neither angry nor miserable. In fact, her characters were noble, with equally noble goals, motivation and conflict. They should have been sympathetic. They weren't.

Knowing the problem had to be somewhere on the page, I plucked my favorite highlighter from my desk and quickly highlighted her verbs and nouns. Aha! I discovered the problem. There was nothing wrong with her writing, nothing wrong with her plotting, and certainly nothing wrong with her characters. The problem was in her word choice. She was choosing hard, hateful, over-the- top nouns and verbs to evoke emotions that weren't anywhere near that dramatic. To show frustration, she was using venomous verbs that indicated hatred. To show impatience, she chose hard-sounding, angry verbs. To show confusion, she chose words that evoked bitterness.

Have I convinced you that subtext exists? Okay, then how do we create subtext instead of letting is seep into our manuscripts unnoticed? I've given the first clue. Word choice. Want to create anger, joy, depression attraction? Try creating those emotion consciously choosing verbs and nouns that evoke those moods, the more concrete the better. Want to take it one step further? Pick verbs and nouns that also sound like the emotions you've chosen. Use hard consonants for hard emotions, soft for softer ones.

If this conscious word choice seems daunting to you, start with the four elements: air, earth wter, fire. Is your heroine a grounded person? Use earth-related verbs, nouns and adjectives when you're in her POV or in the hero's POV when he's thinking about or describing her. Is she ethereal? Try focusing on water words.

What about how we use setting? For me, setting is yet another character in my stories. In my second Love Inspired Harlequin Romance, Hannah's Beau, I described the exterior of a notorious brothel like a woman refusing to accept her age. The madam of this brothel is exactly that, a woman refusing to accept her age. I never say this outright, but it is implied when I describe her home in a way that makes the reader subconsciously think of the owner who has been 29 years old for two decades.

Want to create a dark mood? Use, rain, clouds, or a moonless night. Happy mood? Sunshine, soft breeze, perfect room temperature, background music. How about trepidation? Use fierce winds, cold temperatures, a candle snuffed out by a burst of air.

Although I could talk about this topic forever, I'll give you one last example of subtext. Often what a character doesn't say is as equally important as what she does say. She might utter, "I love you," but her body language (lack of eye contact, shifted stance, crossed arms) say otherwise. Want to show it even further? Our heroine says, "I love you," but her immediate step back followed by an internal thought that reveals her lack of trust toward the hero instantly negates her declaration.

Okay, I've rambled enough. I'll leave you with an exercise that will help you recognize subtext in stories. Pick a favorite movie. Watch a scene with the sound on first. Write down all the emotions and/or moods you think you're seeing in that scene. Now, review that scene again, only this time with the sound off. What does the body language say? What mood are you getting now? What emotions are you seeing that have nothing to do with words? Do they match up with what you saw when the sound was on? Inconsistencies usually indicate a powerful subtext at work.

Thanks, Donnell, for having me here today. I'm a frequent visitor and always come away with new insight. I consider it an honor to share my thoughts on subtext.

Renee Ryan writes for Love Inspired Historicals. Her fabulous editor is Melissa Endlich of Steeple Hill. Look for her first release, The Marshall Takes a Bride, to come out February 9, 2009. For further information check out .


Renee Ryan said...

Hi Donnell,

Waving frantically!!! Thanks for having me here. I love talking craft. After all my ups and downs in the business I've learned it's the only thing I can actually control! ;-)


Arkansas Cyndi said...

This was excellent. I've been struggling with a story that needs a "darker mood". Everything was just too "sunny"! Terrific article. Thanks Renee.

magolla said...

Thanks for an awesome article, Renee! I've come across this problem every now and then when judging a contest. I usually have to say that "it doesn't feel right for a particular character to say this". Now, I have a real word to use! Subtext, a good word.

Liz L. said...

Excellent blog, Renee. I can't wait to do the movie exercise. I am basically an action/dialogue writer who struggles with descriptive stuff. This will help me go back and layer in mood-setting scenes.
And thanks to Donnell for being smart enough to have you as a guest blogger. This was great.

Donnell said...

Liz L. I knew I'd get a plug in here somewhere :) Seriously, when Renee and I were talking, this was a tremendous light bulb moment. It never occurred to me that our moods could transform on the page. So here's a question for our illustrious guest blogger.... Life happens, we go through ups and downs and we have deadlines. What do you do when you have one of these debacles. How do you avoid not letting them transcend to the page?

Victoria Bylin said...

Awesome article, Renee! Now I know why I can't write if I'm ticked off at my wonderful husband : )

As an author, I understand wwhat subtext is and does, but I've never understood how to manage it, or where it comes from. Thanks for insight. I can't wait for your book : )

Renee Ryan said...

Hi Cyndi,

I love dark, emotional books -- Jane Eyre and Rebecca come to mind. Even the setting had a creepy feel. But, I understand the need to keep things sunny. We fall in love with our characters and then hate to put them through pain. I say...go ahead, torture them. That way the happy ending will be so much better. ;-)


Renee Ryan said...

Hi Margaret,

Yep, that pesky subtext will get a new author every time. You know, I used to think writing was easy. I then I started learning craft and realized just how hard it is.


Renee Ryan said...

Hi Liz,

I love the movie exercise. It has made a huge difference in my writing. Are you a Dancing With the Stars fan or So You Think You Can Dance fan? Try watching those routines without the sound! What an eye-opener.


Renee Ryan said...


Great question! It's hard to continue writing during tough times. Unfortunately, I actually have experience in this. During my last deadline I found out I had a huge health issue and then was faced with a cross country move thanks to a job transfer for my hubby. Add a cranky teenager and the stress was off the charts.
I made my deadline, by the way? How? PRAYER, lots and lots of prayer. I asked God to use me as his quill. And then I turned to the good old fashioned staple of putting my behind in the chair and writing.
In other words, I sucked it up. I think that's the hardest part of being a working writer -- ignoring the excuses. Does that make sense?


Renee Ryan said...

Hi Vicki,

You mean you have days when your wonderful husband isn't perfectly wonderful? And here I thought I was the only one married to a guy like that(insert tongue in cheek). Seriously, I'm honored by your kind words.

And, hey, it's my time to gush. I'm a HUGE fan of yours. THE BOUNTY HUNTER'S BRIDE is one of my favorite books of 2008!!!! WOW!


CherylStJohn said...

Great topic and valuable stuff to think about. I love studying movies -- it's work and that's the story I'm sticking to -- but I never thought about watching with the sound off.

Have a great day blogging!

Renee Ryan said...

Hi Cheryl,

Waving to another one of my favorite authors. Your Westerns ROCK. I can't wait to read your first LIH. It's coming out in summer of 2009, right?

And I'm with you, every time I go to the movie theater I claim it's for research and then I think, "WOW, I love my job!" =)~


KL Grady said...

Awesome post, Renee - thanks for being here today!

I remember an RWA conference workshop that I believe Susan Wiggs was teaching. It was all about crafting a scene. Susan or whoever it was recommended writing the bare bones of a scene first, the dialogue and floating heads, then to go back and weave in subtext. To show us an example, she played a few movie snippets. One of those was Casablanca, in which Ilsa and Rick were discussing something completely mundane. Maybe about Rick being drunk? But the subtext was loud and clear: they could never be together again.

This blog post gives me even more food for thought. Thanks again, Renee!

Renee Ryan said...

Hey, kl, thinking is GOOD. I try to do it at least once a day. I'm not always successful. big sigh


Crystal Quartz said...

Very perceptive, Renee. Thanks so much for sharing your insights. You've identified and put a spotlight on an issue I've felt but couldn't pin point, both in my own writing and at times in novels I've read. It helps us be more aware of the power of our words. Good Luck with your book! I'll be buying a copy when it comes out.

~ Tracy

Renee Ryan said...


So glad my words gave you an AHA moment. I read somewhere that said if we can figure out what works (and doesn't work) in a book we like (or don't like) then we will be able to take our writing up a notch. I'm all for that!


Carla Capshaw said...

Hi Renee,

Truly great blog. I love subtext. I think who we are as people really does come through as one of the components of our voice. Like you, I use my setting as another character. I love a dreary day when my characters are feeling blue or a sunny one when they're happy. :-)

You know one way to use one of our own bad/angsty/sad moods is to write the adjectives and verbs that best describe how you're feeling while you're feeling it. Then when you need your characters to feel/express that way, you've got genuine words to help you while you're writing no matter what you're mood is once you get to sit down at the computer. Also, you can note what made you feel that way, so when you need to look at those words you'll remember the good thing or argument that happened. If you can recall the incident, it might help get you back in that frame of mind and aid the subtext in your story.

Of course, if recalling the argument that caused all that angst will put you in a foul mood again, you might not want to use that idea. ;-)

Renee Ryan said...

WOW, Carla. I love your idea about exploring and then writing down our own emotions to use later in our books. I've never thought of that.

THANK YOU! Now I have a reason to hit the office supply store for a special journal/notebook. And since I'm an office supply junkie, who knows what else I'll find.


Elaine Levine said...

Renee--this is a brilliant bit of analysis. Thanks for sharing it with us!


Renee Ryan said...


You're welcome. ;-)


Nancy said...

Renee, your blog blew me away!

You've put subtext into terms that are easy to see, hear and feel, and this info will stick with me!

Congratulations on all your successes - and a toast to future success!

Nancy Haddock
La Vida Vampire

Misty Evans said...

I agree with Nancy...I'm blown away by your insight, Renee. Thank you for sharing this valuable tool.

Carla's idea is terrific too! Wow, lightbulb moments all over the place for me.

Off to check my subtext...

Renee Ryan said...


I'm so glad my thoughts resonated.


Oh, I'm a big fan of lightbulb moments. Woohooooo!


Missy Tippens said...

Renee, great post! And so true. I hadn't thought, though, about how clearly our inner selves come through. Gotta watch writing when I'm mad at someone! :)


Renee Ryan said...

Missy! Great to see you. And, hey, just use all that mad in a scene with high conflict. Tension is tension. ;-)


jwhit said...

Nice, Renee. I can so relate, and sometimes wonder if all the subconscious nasties come out too much in my stuff, too. You know the ones we [often] women punch down in our gut to avoid offending?

I also like the movie observation idea to separate spoken language from body language. I'd like to extend it one step: watch a movie you DON'T know WITHOUT sound first and make notes about the emotions. THEN rewatch the scene/s with the sound. Otherwise that subconscious will already 'know' what's going on. I've not tried it, but it makes logical sense to me.

Good luck with your reflections AND your writing.

Renee Ryan said...

Oh, jwhit, lovely idea you have. Using a movie you haven't seen is a great idea. See, that's why blogs are so great. Brainstorming at its best!!!


Keli Gwyn said...


Wonderful post. That's the best discussion of subtext I've heard. You really made things clear. I'll be far more aware of that element when I write now, thanks to your information.

Can't wait for your book to be released. I'm loving the Steeple Hill Historical line.

Renee Ryan said...


I'm so happy you stopped by and found something useful in my thoughts. Writing is such a solitary business...we never know if we're the only ones out there thinking about these things. Guess what, we're not!!! ;-)


Joan said...

Hi Renee, waving from Kentucky!

Fantastic post and a prime example of how BLESSED I was to have you be my very first writing mentor.

She taught me everything I know *g*

Renee Ryan said...

Joan!!! Waving back at you from Georgia. And, hey, lady, Miss GH finalist and contest maven extraordinaire, your talent was there from the beginning -- I just shared insight other authors were kind enough to give to me first. That's what is so wonderful about the RWA writing community...we learn, we give back!

Miss ya, hon!

Joan said...


All I know is that you were THE first to EVER read my story. I still remember you (a stranger at the time...thank goodness we took care of THAT right quick)looking at me and telling me that this first effort was really good. But the next thing you told me was "Let me show you how to make it better"

You also advised me not to think I could quit my day job but I'm still hoping to prove you wrong on that one ;-)

Renee Ryan said...

Yay, Joan! Prove me wrong. I would love, love, love it!!!


Peg Brantley said...

Great post, Renee. I forwarded the link to a few friends and I'm pleased they agreed.

Donnell said...

Wow, Renee, what a great day you had. Thanks so much for sharing your insights with us. I'm looking forward to seeing The Marshal Takes a Bride in book form. I hear the author is fabulous! All best! And thank you for being with us today :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Getting here late, but I really enjoyed your post on subtext and appreciated the specific ways you helped us identify it.

Thanks for telling us on the GH loop about this!

Renee Ryan said...

Thanks to everyone who stopped by yesterday! I can talk craft all day long, but now I have to get back to work. Scary deadline looming!!!!!


Margie Lawson said...

Renee --

Ah, you think like I do! I teach writers how to consciously add psychological power with scene-themed words, body language, and every nuanced message conveyed.

Thanks for the great blog!

I'm looking forward to reading THE MARSHALL TAKES A BRIDE in February!


Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

This was an excellent article. It makes me wonder if more novels would be published if the authors were more aware of how these simple word choices impact the "feel" of the work.
- Karin

Renee Ryan said...

Peg, thanks for stopping by and sending others. You're a sweetheart.


I'm all about examples. Must be the teacher in me. ;-)


Yeah, you'd think I majored in psycology or something. Ha! I wish. I went the Economics and Latin route. Lot of good those did me.


You make a good point. I think it's very important to recognize that the 'feel' of a story is why we read romance and all its sub-genres.

~Renee~five pages away from meeting my deadline. Woohoooo.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Thank you so much for this informative article.