Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Subtext for Writers, Part 2 - How It's Done Right

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Last month, we talked about WHY we use sub-text in our stories. This month, we talk about a couple of ways to do it.

Character Information and Backstory
Why do you pick the characters you do for your story? We look for 'types' of characters - old, grumpy men, irritating children, aging hippies, warm grandmothers, gruff soldiers - we could names hundreds of character types, any of which might be the perfect one for a particular role in your story. 

But what are they really? Are they just “the type” or is there a subtext beneath the reasons they're in the book?

Let's take Scarlett O'Hara. She's the epitome of selfish, spoiled and head-strong at the beginning of the story. But she won't leave Melanie in childbirth, even with the danger to her own life. She slaps her sister for hysterics, but Scarlett “prostitutes” herself - first to Rhett and then to Frank - to pay the taxes on Tara. We may not like Scarlett for going after what she wants but she doesn't sit around the house bemoaning her fate like too many women of that time period probably would have. She got up off her duff and made sure that everyone had enough to eat, even if she had to make them work too. 

What's her subtext? We could wonder what she ever saw in Ashley (which is a question that I still haven't answered), we can try to figure out why she couldn't see Rhett as what he was (the perfect match for her) or we could try to understand why she was willing to sacrifice everything for Tara, especially since she could have lived a much easier life in Atlanta. Those are all things that she brings to the table from the very beginning. We as the reader must be able to uncover who she really is (subtext) from the Southern lady (text) she pretends to be. 

Think about the dance scene near the beginning of the movie. Scarlett is dressed from head to toe in black, mourning a man she cared nothing about. She wants to dance and, because of social norms, can't without causing a scandal. So, we see her leaning on the table (text) with her feet flying underneath (subtext). And then Rhett comes along and shows her that thumbing her nose at convention is a lot more fun no matter what all the fuddy-duddies think.  Subtext!

Can you think of a way to use subtest in your story? What mysterious secret is your protagonist hiding? How does she hide it? And when she finally confesses, what changes does it bring?

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at www.sallyhamer.blogspot.comor on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Another great post to start the year. Thanks, Sally. Gave me lots to think about.

  2. Sally, I love this post. I love it even more as you used GWTW for examples. Nicely done. I use subtext with my characters to explore why they are the way they are. Particularly with dialogue and inner dialogue, those "flash in the pan" moments really clarify a lot.

  3. I loved the reference to GWTW. I have to skip many parts when I re-read it for the umpteenth time because of the overt racism. However, as the daughter and grand-daughter of Southern women, I must object strenuously to your speculation that other Southern women would have bemoaned their fate and done nothing. Southern women have always been strong and resourceful. There's is the iron hand in the velvet glove. I believe it was Stephen Vincent Benet who wrote that the Confederacy was propped up by ladies' ivory fans. It's unlikely that the Confederacy would have continued on its misguided path had it not been for those brave, stubborn and totally wrongheaded women. The book and film succeeded in the South, not because Scarlett was an anomaly, but because Southern women recognized their own mother's and grandmother's strength and determination in Scarlett.

  4. Hi, Nonna! I'm sorry to be late replying to your post. And I'm sorry you thought I was maligning Southern women specifically, when I was really trying to be very general about a time period, not a location. You're right, of course. Few women of any time period, location, or any other persuasion sit around bemoaning their fate. Most of them/us get things done.

    Thanks for the post!