Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Subtext for Writers, Part 4 - Images, Metaphors, and Genre

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

We’ve spent the last three months exploring the various ways we create subtext for our characters, using the way they interact with other characters to explain “what lies beneath”.

Just like onions, ogres and stories have multiple layers that lie hidden, at least until they finally are courageous enough to let their secrets be known. 

Here are three more ways to use subtext: 

"Film implies meaning through images, not just words, gestures and actions. We see a visual image that, if it contains subtext, will carry unconscious  associations." (Seger, 105)  The idea is to use the world around the characters as another character, a character with deep and hidden meanings. 

Weather, seasons, time of day can be used to create subtext. A brewing storm can exemplify sexual tension between two characters. A winter snow covers the ground while a character covers his secret. Rarely does a horror story happen in the light of day - why else would vampires be destroyed by sunlight?

There are lots of other examples that don't have links to nature. For instance, a scene set in a bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans will be much different than that same scene set in a winery in Napa, California. 

Environment is a perfect way to create a level of subtext, using word choices that accentuate your story.

When we compare one thing to another, symbolism can be used to hide truths. The use of the term “the light at the end of the tunnel” for instance, is a metaphor for the ending of a hard time – we’ve come through a bad situation and it looks better in the future. Readers instantly recognize these metaphors, letting the author hide innuendos behind them.

Most books fit into some sort of a category, or genre, which allows the reader to have a basic idea what it will be about from the very first and to know that a certain “formula” will be followed. For instance, the tagline (subtext) for the movie, Chicago,is "With the right song and dance you can get away with murder" which immediately sets the stage, helping build expectations for the audience. In fact, in one of the most stylistic numbers, Richard Gere who plays the lawyer, Billy Flynn, tap dances his way through a very difficult part of the trial. Roxie gets off, showing the tagline was indeed true, you can get away with murder. 

In the movie, Airplane, lots of horrible things are going on—things that, in a non-comedic film, could have been tragic. But because it's a farce, and we know it, we laugh at the various disasters. Our expectations are set up by the subtext—humor can get you through anything.

How about horror? Little Shop of Horrors isn't about an alien who is invading Earth, except on the surface. It's really about the consequences of greed. Will Seymour lose his moral compass to get what he truly wants—Audrey? 

Subtext allows the writer to create an entertaining story while still teaching a lesson. Seymour has to be honest with both Audrey and himself and then brave enough to break free from the monster. Both the entertainment and the moral are important aspects of the story and, in the end, are blended so skillfully, the audience almost doesn't realize they’ve been taught a lesson.

Dr. Seger concludes that 'Great writing has layers, and more layers, and more layers. No word, or gesture, or action is arbitrary. Much of what is said and done... implies and suggests something else.' (Seger, 151)

In so many words, subtext.

“Text is what we see—which is only the outside of the onion, or just the tip of the iceberg. The subtext is all the rest.”

How do you put subtext into your stories? Is it overt? Or covert?

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. Always outstanding information! Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you can use the information.

  2. Indeed, the best narratives invite multiple readings because there are so many layers, it is like reading a different book every time.
    Great lesson, Sally!

    1. Thanks, Ingmar! You're right -- layers = levels of understanding.

      Appreciate you!