Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Subtext for Writers, Part 3 - Words, Gestures, and Action

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

We continue learning about sub-text through words, gestures, and action:

Using words to find what lies beneath may be the easiest of all—the one most of us already have down pat—saying one thing when we mean another. Characters are no different. We give our characters words to say while we give them an entirely different set of feelings, actions and behaviors. This is meant to intrigue the reader, to make them want to read more. Sometimes it's more difficult than others but, ultimately, a writer can have two completely different conversations going on between two people at the same time - one on the surface (text) while the other (subtext) is showing the reader what is really going on.

We have several ways to do this: 
1. Similies - comparisons bring layers of associations to mind. "If a character says, 'Our love is like a rose in bloom,' our minds immediately drift to associations with the freshness of a rose, like the freshness of new-found love, the beginning of love like the beginning of spring, the youth of love, like a dewy rose. The use of the word 'like' moves beyond simply saying, 'We are newly in love!'" (Seger, 57)

2. Implying, then saying the subtext- this happens when Joe says something ambiguous and Jill calls him on it. So Joe says it again, this time without the subtext.“Jill, I like that dress,” as opposed to “Jill, I love you!”

3. Stopping the sentence- start a sentence with the REAL information and stop in the middle. Then change the sentence to create subtext.

"Joe, you look so s---, you look great!" (Sexy being the text and great the subtext.)

4. Misinterpreting the subtext- allowing Joe to be misunderstood by another character. This can be successfully done by Jill misreading Joe's body language. Joe turns his head away because he doesn’t want her to see him tear up. Jill thinks he doesn’t care.

5. Talking about one thing, meaning another- instead of talking about his mother's death, for instance, Joe may instead talk about his favorite dog running away when he was a child. This gives him a chance to talk about the depth of his emotions instead of what really is bothering him.

6. Double entendre- easiest and most over-done. Can even be campy and will bring giggles and smirks. “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”Mae West. 
Gestures and action
Body language is a perfect way to create subtext, especially when the words being said are in direct contrast. This would be a place for Joe to tell Jill he likes her when the reader can see his legs are crossed away from her and he won't look at her. WE know that he doesn't mean what he says. 

A good example of this is the interview with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as they promoted the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They had started their relationship during the filming but were denying all of it. The reason no one believed them? Jolie spent the entire interview flirting with Pitt. Her body language is a classic example of subtext - her mouth saying one thing when her body was saying quite another one.

What examples can you come up with? 
Seger. Dr. Linda. Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath. ISBN# 9781932907964


Don't Miss the Other Posts in the Series!

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 freelance 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 or 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. Outstanding and informative! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Thank you, my dear! I'm glad you're enjoying my posts.

  2. I am loving these series of post! Thanks, Sally, for sharing this information.

  3. Thanks, Ingmar! I always appreciate you chiming in.