Subtext…What is it?

I’m going to talk about subtext in stories today and will have a giveaway to tell you about later.

I first started thinking about subtext when I was critiquing a friend’s manuscript. She asked me to take a look at her final manuscript. Although an incredibly hardworking woman, this particular writer was one of the most negative people I had ever met. As I started reading her manuscript—a supposedly light-hearted short contemporary romance—something felt “off” about the story. Why did I keep putting down the manuscript with a sense of nausea in my stomach? About halfway through the story it hit me. Her negativity was coming through the pages. Not in the story, itself, but in the subtext. As I read page after page I kept getting a sense that the heroine would never find happiness no matter how the writer wrote the ending. That manuscript never sold.

Fast forward several years after the above incident. Another friend. Another manuscript. Another problem with subtext. Again, I was reading a manuscript that left me feeling…ick. Again, I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. All I knew was that this friend was in the middle of a nasty divorce. Her anger and misery were coming out on the pages, even though her characters were neither angry nor miserable. In fact, her characters were noble with equally noble goals, motivation and conflict. They should have been sympathetic. They weren’t.

Knowing the problem had to be somewhere on the page, I plucked my favorite highlighter from my desk and quickly highlighted her verbs and nouns. Aha! I discovered the problem. There was nothing wrong with her writing. The problem was in her word choice. She chose hard, hateful, over-the-top nouns and verbs to evoke emotions that weren’t anywhere near that dramatic. To show frustration, she was using venomous verbs that indicated hatred. To show impatience, she chose hard-sounding, angry verbs. To show confusion, she chose words that evoked bitterness.

Movies have subtext, too, especially the better movies. Here’s a fun game/exercise for you to try. Watch a scene of a movie with the sound off. Write down all the emotions and/or moods you think you’re seeing in that scene. What does the body language say? What mood are you picking up on? What emotions are you seeing portrayed? Now, review that scene again, only this time with the sound on. Do your original impressions match up with what you saw when the sound was off? Did you catch things when the sound was off that you might have missed when it was on?

Two movies that handle subtext with expert precision are Atonement (the scene at the fountain, particularly) and The Man in the Iron Mask (especially the scene after the Musketeers have rescued the king’s twin brother from prison). Watch either movie and see what I mean. If you’re a writer, you’ll be inspired. If you’re a reader, you’ll have a better insight into why a well-told story is so well-told.

Now, about the giveaway.

Leave a comment and you’ll be included in a drawing for my current release, THE OUTLAW’S REDEMPTION. One lucky winner will receive all six books in my Charity House series.

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22 thoughts on “Subtext…What is it?”

  1. Very interesting, Renee. I’m going to try your suggestion about watching a movie with the sound off. I can’t wait to see what I can find about the characters that way!

  2. Subtext…

    I think of the movie The Count of Monte Cristo. Lots of stuff going on. I feel his despair while he is trapped in prison. Disbelief. The thirst for revenge…

    Music in movies: loved Pretty Woman’s soundtrack with Vivaldi showcasing her emergence as a young, beautiful, vibrant young woman falling in love.

    Man From Snowy River has a fantastic sound track too.

    Phantom of the Opera you can feel every emotion of the Phantom.

  3. I think a good movie for that would be Braveheart. My husband loves this movie and often times when he is watching it, I don’t even have to be listening to whats going on but the moment i take a look at the screen i can see so many emotions!

  4. I love the movie Pretty Women and don’t even have to be in the room to ‘see’ what is happening. I watch Man from Snowy River and Dances with Wolves in my car the same way.

    Now I will have to check out a movie and see what I can learn from just watching.

    I read a book not too long ago that was just too sweet. Did not care for it. Even through conflict I felt the characters were too nice. Now I may know why, the author’s choice of words.

  5. Hi Renee, I’m on the plane heading toward Atlanta. Lots of turbulence over Texas lol. This is a greatly informative post today…lots to think about as both a reader and writer. See you soon!

  6. There have been a few books that left me a little off when I finished reading… the characters had their HEA, but the books had left me with an unusual feeling… never thought the reason could be subtext… very interesting… as for watching a movie without sound… have to try that!

  7. I think the music in a movie is so important. It can make or break a movie.
    I haven’t tried watching a movie without sound, but it sounds very interesting. I think I’ll try that.

  8. Loved this article. I hadn’t thought about it that way before and I think it explains a reaction I had to a book about half a year ago. Maybe something was going on in that author’s life that was coming through in her story, even though the story line should have been uplifting. I finally just put down the book half way through.
    Brittany M.

  9. I’ve never watched a movie with the sound off. I think sometime I will have to try it. Thanks for the giveaway.

  10. I’ll have to try watching a movie with the sound off. Of course then I would have to actually WATCH it instead of just listening to it while I worked on something else.

  11. Good point about subtext. It is hard not to have it and equally hard at times to recognize it. Other posts have mentioned how what is happening in a writer’s life can effect a story in many ways. By the sound of your article, subtext may be the hardest to recognize, especially for the authors themselves. A good reason to have beta readers.

  12. Great article and good advice. Looking forward to reading your book. Would love to win. Thank you for sharing and please eme in your giveaway.


  13. Well, I hope i’m not too late to get in on this one. I just can’t seem to hit it right lately. I enjoyed this, but if I do this it would need to be one I have already seen. For you see, Mine are not recorded so couldn’t replay the scene. It does make sense tho. I really would love to win this one. Thanks for the chance.
    MAXIE mac262(at)me(dot)com

  14. Really interesting article about subtexts. One time we watched Alien without the sound and it was rather funny. We could see that Sigourney Weaver was tense and afraid. It made the monster look funny and we actually laughed. Believe me, the first time I saw it i did not laugh. it still creeps me out.
    Also, one does not get the same effect when watching Jaws without the music.

  15. Wow, that explains SO much!!! You have opened my eyes to so much with that explanation. I can’t wait to try that with the movies!

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