Tuesday, August 4, 2015

H Is For Hidden

Jennifer talks about subtext…

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop on subtext. It’s a subject one of my critique partners constantly talks about and I decided it might be good for me to get a better understanding of what she’s talking about.

Basically, subtext is content that is not explicitly stated, but is understood or hinted at. Subtext is hidden (see, I got my “H” in there!), but the readers still understands it.

There are several drivers of subtext: conflict, character history, symbolism & motif, dialog, and “everything else.”

We all use subtext in our writing, even if we’re not aware we’re doing it. One way we do this is with a look or the body language of our hero or heroine. Those looks or body language convey anger, disbelief, attraction, etc., without our having to say “he was attracted to her” or “she was angry at him.” It’s a way of showing, rather than telling.

In my first book, A Heart of Little Faith, I even used subtext in my characters’ names. Even though the hero is in a wheelchair, I wanted to show his strength, so I gave him the name of Gideon, which means mighty warrior. I then furthered that impression by continuing to put him in situations where he could demonstrate his strength. The heroine, on the other hand, is named Lily. I didn’t want her to be weak—I hate weak heroines—but I did want something that opposed the hero.

In Skin Deep, I used symbolism in the opening of the prologue and the first chapter to contrast two very different situations. My heroine comes from an abusive first marriage. In the prologue, her husband is about to come after her. In the first chapter, she has gained her independence from him and has come into her own to start her new life:


Los Angeles, Four Years Ago
            The glass bottle rolled off the Formica table, splattered the last of the gin onto the linoleum floor, and released its pungent odor into the shadowy kitchen. Billy swept his meaty hand across the table, sending his empty glass against the imitation-oak cabinet, where it broke on impact and sent shards of glass skittering across the sticky kitchen floor. The glass mixed with the gin and made the pool of liquid sparkle as moonlight glinted off of it.

Los Angeles, Four Years Later
            The square, plastic bottle crashed to the floor, the white cap skittered under a cabinet and bisque-colored foundation splattered across the tile floor, where it made a Rorschach pattern within the large white squares. With a groan and a roll of her eyes, Valerie searched under the makeup table, found the errant cap, replaced it on the bottle, and returned the foundation to the tray. She grabbed a damp rag and wiped up the mess.

In my Women of Valor* series, the two books deal with Jewish holidays. One, the holiday of Purim; the other is Passover. Both holidays have themes that worked well in romance novels—hiding one’s past and freedom. There were lots of opportunities to weave those themes throughout the stories using subtext, making for a much richer storytelling.

*For the entire month of August, the first book in my Women of Valor series, The Seduction of Esther, is on sale for $.99 on Amazon.


  1. Interesting post, Jen (even if it was H and not E!). I don't think I've actually used symbolism in my novels, and for characters names, I look at the decade when they were born, not the meanings of their names. But I do agree that the subtext in our writing can tell readers a lot about our characters. There are definitely times when 'RUI' comes into play i.e. Resist the Urge to Explain. We need to give our readers credit to reading between the lines sometimes.

    1. And I was so proud that I came up with an "H" post. Sigh. I think when we can RUI, we give our writing added depth.

  2. Great post. The workshop must have been a good one.
    I agree about trusting the reader's intelligence. Though not all readers like to think. A crit partner's agent is making her edit to be less subtle.

    1. You have to find a happy medium between telling the readers too much and not telling them enough - and there's also the danger of over-explaining things and/or beating readers around the head with the same information. I read a HQ novel that must have told me about 50 times that the hero liked being in control and/or hated losing control of a situation.

    2. Yes, I agree with Paula. And the workshop was excellent (and really funny too).

  3. A great reminder about that show, don't tell.

    I printed out pages and pages of information on and examples of body language to help me with that.

    1. Get the Emotion Thesaurus, Debra - very useful lists of body language and also internal reactions for a lot of different emotions.

    2. I love the Emotion Thesaurus. Fabulous reference.