Tips on Subtext ~ What Is It REALLY?

Thank-you to Shannon Donnelly for supplying a “handout” to a workshop I was looking forward to – SUBTEXT.  We are truly fortunately at Writers in the Storm to have Shannon as a contributing blogger the first Monday on every month.

by Shannon Donnelly

There was supposed to be a workshop on this at RWA national conference—it was canceled and I heard some folks regretting that. So in the interest of helping out, here’s some easy advice on subtext:

Let your characters talk about everything EXCEPT what they are thinking and what’s really going on.

A great example of this is to have your characters meet for breakfast the morning after they first go to bed. Instead of the guy talking about how he doesn’t want this to be a commitment, have him bring up and talk about sports—about the game that afternoon, about how it’s going to be good since the home team traded for a better player from another team, about how it’s changed a lot since the team picked up a new coach (message in all of this is that nothing stays the same).

Heroine—being a smart girl—gets the point, and she then starts her own subtext conversation. Oh yeah, well, you’re going to regret passing up someone like me—that’s what she’s thinking. But this is subtext. She doesn’t say any of that. She throws back at the guy that the other team’s star pitcher—who has been with them for five years—is going to wipe the field with them. Oh, and by the way, she goes on to burn his toast, and leave seeds in his OJ just to get back at him for being such a jerk.

In other words—the character talk about anything EXCEPT what they are thinking and what’s going on.

This is often something you have to do in revision. First draft you may find yourself letting him tell her he’s not ready for commitment, and she cries and tells him he’s a jerk, and the reader is bored, bored, bored. You’ll be bored just writing it, too.

And here’s the thing—most people, most of the time, want to avoid conflict.

We don’t want to ask the boss for a raise. We don’t want to tell the girl/guy we just met that last night is not going to be repeated. We don’t want to tell a loved one that something must be done with that morning breath. We don’t even want to tell the favorite kid that the person picked out for marriage is soooo very wrong.

So we duck and cover, and we try to slip in what we mean between words.

Instead of asking the boss for a raise, we take on a project, do an amazing job, and then mention to the boss how sales are up in this past month (subtext is you should give me a raise because I did that).

Instead of telling the girl/guy last night is not going to be repeated, we refuse breakfast, take down the phone number, tell ‘em we’ll call, and duck out the door with excuses of other things we’re late to (subtext I’ll call you).

Instead of telling a loved one about that morning breath, we buy them a bottle of mouthwash and leave it in a conspicuous place (yes, subtext can be through action not just words).

Instead of telling the truth to our kids, we smile, and ask that very wrong person a bunch of embarrassing questions designed to show the kid that this person is the wrong one. Alternate strategy is to trot out embarrassing stories about the kid (subtext is you guys are so wrong for each other).

Subtext works best with strong contrast—and it can work, too, with characters that don’t play along. It’s sometimes fun to have a guy who doesn’t get the subtext of a woman trying to brush him off without her saying, “Get lost, jerk.”

Subtext is all about how we negotiate in a conversation for what we want—we want to play nice, be polite, and still get what we want.

And, yes, you have a few folks who don’t do this—who are blunt and rude and say exactly what they think. But they’re not as much fun to write.

Do you have questions about subtext? Examples of subtext in your life? We want to hear about them in the comments!


About Shannon…

Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

Her latest Regency Historical Romance, Paths of Desire, can be found as an ebook, along with her Regency romances, now available from Cool Gus Publishing. She has had novellas published in several anthologies, has had young adult horror stories published, and is the author of several computer games.

Shannon is a regular speaker at writing conferences, and will be speaking at the 2012 RWA  National conference in Anaheim. She gives online workshops and is the author of Story Telling; Story Showing, an ebook that compliments her popular online class Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop.

She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at,, and twitter/sdwriter.

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29 Responses to Tips on Subtext ~ What Is It REALLY?

  1. Diane Tibert says:

    Thanks. I haven’t thought about doing this, but when I think about it, I’m a natural avoider of arguments, so that naturally comes out in my writing. Interesting. The donkey caught my eye. I have a miniature donkey, just two years old. She’s quite a creature. She looks a lot like the brown one looking over the shoulder.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    I’m saving this one Shannon. I love reading this in books, and I even have great places for them in mine, and I never think about doing it! You’re right, it’s SO much more interesting to write!

    You’re not only knowledgeable and an amazing writer, you’ve got the cutest ass! (The donkey, Hon.)

  3. Thanks for doing this! I was one of those that really looked forward to that workshop– had double-starred it– and was disappointed.

    • SD Writer says:

      Yes, it was a great idea for a workshop. It’s one of those things you forget about when you’re trying to juggle so many other things in the story.

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    Shannon, I love the way you’ve laid this out. I’ll confess, I don’t usually remember to do this on my first pass through a book. Like Laura, I’m going to bookmark this to come back to for my edits. 🙂

    • SD Writer says:

      I think this is one of those things that works best in edits — when you have the bones down in the scene and you can go back and play with fresh options.

  5. Thanks, Shannon. I was one of those who showed up for the workshop and was disappointed. I grew up in the Midwest, where we say what we mean, and still have trouble in my fiction making my characters lie, beat around the bush, and otherwise not speak straight. Your handout will be very useful to me now because I’m revising a novel in which everyone has secrets they don’t want to reveal.

    • I was sorry about the conference workshop being cancelled as well, Shauna, and I was so happy to see Shannon’s post for this month.
      Thank you, Shannon!

    • Laura Drake says:

      Shauna, Interesting – I never thought about my midwest roots possibly factoring in – but that feels just right!

    • SD Writer says:

      We all have secrets–even if it’s just that you once stole a piece of bubble gum. And think about this, too–you can be very direct and still have subtext. Think about a character who wants her daughter to go to a nearby college instead of out of state–and so she offers to pay full tuition for the nearest college (subtext here is “you pick anything else and you’re on your own). There are degrees of subtext and layers.

  6. I’ve been doing this since I took Brenda Novak’s class in NJ, but i’ve never thought about doing it through actions. It’s really easy to do with historicals. Great idea, Shannon.
    In real life I do it all the time, but I’m not going to say when.

  7. Jann says:

    Thanks for the wonderful post Shannon. I know that Barb and I both had subtext on our list as well at Nationals.

  8. Stacy Green says:

    This is such a great way to make a book unputdownable. Thanks so much!

  9. Yvette Carol says:

    Even though we do use subtext in everyday life I really never thought of how to use it in my stories, until now. Great advice Shannon. And I think everything we can do to approximate real life in our fiction is worth doing. 🙂

    • SD Writer says:

      I always think of subtext when I want my husband to take out the trash. I never ask him, but say things like, “Are you busy? Shouldn’t we clean up a bit? Do you think it’s getting smelly in here?” Anything but the direct question–such a bad habit in real life and so useful in fiction.

  10. Added this to my editing notes. Thanks Shannon!

  11. marsharwest says:

    Great post, Shannon. I never thought to do this in writing. Will certainly take a look at WIP to see where I can fit this in. The action piece was especially helpful.

  12. bronjonesnz says:

    Thank you Shannon. That is very simply put and very practical advice. I will print your post out and paste it to my laptop!

  13. Gerri Bowen says:

    I like that idea, Shannon.

  14. Great post! This is something I struggle with while writing, but adore as a reader – quite often the resulting dialogue is laugh out loud funny, or provides an additional layer of character depth that will keep me reading!

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