Tag Archives: creating depth in writing

Fundamentals of Writing: Conveying Depth and Revealing Character through Conversations #amwriting

As I mentioned in my previous post, depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. We use the arc of the opening scene to lure the reader, to hint at what lies hidden below. The scene opens, the first character(s) step onto the stage, the action rises and ebbs, and the reader wants to know more.

WritingCraftSeries_depth-through-conversationSome scenes have no dialogue, are comprised of the actions that propel the plot forward. But often, conversations are the core of the passage, propelling the story onward to the launching point for the next act.

Dialogue is an opportunity to reveal who your characters are and hint at what lies beneath the surface they present to the world. Conversations must have a purpose and follow an arc: they open, disseminate information, and move toward a conclusion of some sort.

Dialogue that doesn’t reveal character and advance the story in some vital way is a waste of the reader’s time.

  • We use dialogue to show the personalities of our characters.
  • We use it to reveal secrets and create empathy.
  • We use conversation to convey knowledge when the characters and the reader need it and reveal motivations.

First, we must identify what should be conveyed in our conversation. Who needs to know what? Why must they know it? How many words do you intend to devote to it? Be wary—conversations can get out of hand and become an info dump.

Info dumps don’t add depth. They add fluff.

Depth consists of many layers. It is a combination of story/plot information and character revelations. It is the underlying theme and the atmosphere of the world the characters inhabit. It is the mood created by the words you habitually use.

If you look in a thesaurus, you can see that most words in the English language have more than one shade of meaning depending on the context in which we use them. Your word choices are essential in showing a world of many shades of color.

Each word adds to or detracts from the feeling of atmosphere. Those choices are critical in conveying personality and creating a sense of empathy for our characters.

Conversations are opportunities to show depth as well as convey information. Your habits, how you form your phrases, and your choice of words establishes the tone.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This pertains to the thoughts of your characters too.

We have mental conversations with ourselves in real life. Sometimes we even speak our thoughts aloud.

Researchers say that most of the time, our inner monologue concerns how we see ourselves. These thoughts are often in whole sentences and phrased negatively. And most telling of all, we aren’t usually aware of our inner thoughts when we have them.

However, an interior monologue is useful for revealing motives. What they think but don’t speak aloud tells the reader a lot about the character.

It shows who they think they are as well as how they perceive others.

Conflict keeps the protagonists from achieving their goals. In real life, our internal conflicts create greater roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

These tiny inner voices of self-destruction are crucial to creating relatable characters. They reveal the inner layers that make the character who they really are beneath the surface they show the world.

Sometimes, revealing a critical bit of backstory can only be accomplished through the protagonist’s thought processes or those of a companion.

A loud contingent at any gathering of authors will say thoughts should not be italicized. While I disagree with that stance, I do see their point.

As a reader, I dislike it when long strings of private thoughts are italicized. This is an accepted practice in the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and YA novels, so readers of those genres expect to see thoughts presented in italics. However, we need to be aware of how overwhelming it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of words written in a leaning font.

If the author makes it clear that the character is having the conversation with themselves, italics aren’t needed.

It was, he thought, one of those rare days, where the sun shone benevolently upon mankind, a day when the constant wind was gentle, benign. Aloud he said, “Enjoy the sun while you can, my friend. The rain is eternal here.”

Dialogue, both spoken and interior, sets the scene and unveils the theme. Your word choices reveal characters and their secrets, their personalities.

Your word choices reveal you, the author. Through those words, we hear your voice.

So, let’s consider that voice. Voice is a combination of word choices and grammar. It is distinct to each author.

From the reader’s perspective, grammar/punctuation is to writing what gravity is to the universe. It holds everything together.

We obey traffic signals when driving to avoid getting into wrecks. In the same way, our written work must abide by specific fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable—a wreck.

This is especially important when it comes to dialogue. What is spoken must be easily distinguished from the ordinary narrative.

Overall, most readers don’t see minor grammar glitches in the narrative, which is good because we all make them. Even editors write crap and need editors. But readers do notice unprofessional writing, especially when it comes to how dialogue is punctuated.

Readers notice amateurish writing.

If you are new to writing and are unsure of how to punctuate conversations so that readers can understand your work, see my post from July 29, 2020: Four Rules for Writing Conversations. The post details four simple, easy-to-remember rules of punctuation, rules for keeping the conversations flowing and understandable.

Epic Fails meme2I have said this before, but it bears mentioning again: Never resort to writing foreign languages using Google Translate (or any other translation app). Also, please don’t go nuts writing out foreign accents. It’s frustrating for readers to try to untangle garbled dialogue. A word or two, used consistently, is all that is needed to convey foreignness.

Information dispensed gradually reveals the plot, unveils hidden layers. What your characters think and say are the reader’s window into them and their world.

Conversations pull the curtain back, revealing the characters’ innermost secrets and their story.

With every sentence, a prism of information illuminates who the characters believe they are and is passed from the author to the reader. It is a light, filtered through the characters, that colors the narrative with the shades and moods of the words you habitually choose.

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Fundamentals of Writing: Character Depth – who do they think they are? #amwriting

Depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. Characters with depth feel solid, alive, as real as your best friend.

depth-of-characterTo achieve a sense of depth, we begin with simplicity. Each character’s sub-story must be built upon who these characters think they are.

One of the most useful seminars I’ve ever attended was given by a Romance writer. He is a strong proponent of assigning verbs and nouns to each character at the outset as a way to get inside their heads.

If there is one thing Romance authors understand, it is how to create a strong impression of character.

When I plan a character, I make a simple word picture of them. The word picture is made of a verb and a noun, the two words that best describe each person. We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the story’s outset.

We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms, so put your thesaurus to work. In my book, Julian Lackland, I had four characters with significant roles, so I assigned them nouns that describe their principal defining quality.

This noun is the core characteristic thread that stays with them, is challenged by events, and either wins in the end or is their downfall.

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love.) He sees himself as a good knight, a defender of innocence.

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion.) He aspires to chivalry but has a pragmatic side. He sees himself as a good knight but knows that good doesn’t always win.

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage.) She is a good knight but is under no illusions about the people she defends. She is chivalrous but practical.

Bold Lora’s Noun is: Bravado (Boldness, Brashness.) She desires fame, is convinced that knights are defined by the celebrity their deeds bring them.

In real life, the way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. Self-conceptions color how we react to events. We are gradually altered by events as life goes on. Our view of ourselves evolves, and our reactions are changed.

By the end of the story, the way our characters see themselves should have evolved. The circumstances you put them through must affect and remake them.

Once I know their nouns, I assign my characters a verb that describes their gut reactions. This word will shape the way they react to every situation that arises.

unreliable-narratorThey might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth.

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms: (Preserve, Uphold, Protect.)

Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare.)

Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are: Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist.)

Bold Lora’s 2 Verbs are: Desire, Acquire (Own, Control, Imprison.)

When I wrote these characters, I knew how they believed they would react in a given situation and that knowledge drove the plot. Why was it so clear to me? Because I had drawn their portraits in a few descriptive words.

Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity breaks his mind.

Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness breaks his health.

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. She’s at war with herself regarding her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Bold Lora must Acquire Fame and Control Chivalry. Her thirst for notoriety destroys her.

When we uncover the nouns and verbs that describe who our characters think they are, we have a grip on creating characters who are alive to the reader.

How we phrase this when describing them in our outline is essential. Placing the verb before the noun describes a character’s core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Knowing who our characters are before we meet them is important. Go ahead and make that personnel file detailing their backstory if you need to. Set that infodump aside because the real story will be built upon who they think they are on page one of this story.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which colors the readers’ view.

The characters we write are unreliable witnesses to the events that shape them. Their self-perception shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards.

These are the watershed moments when our characters must examine their motives, and either face them or gloss over their failings.

Depth is instilled into to a scene where the characters prevail despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds. Or conversely, depth can be added when character flaws cause them to fail miserably at a point where they could have triumphed.

What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the factor that could be their ultimate ruin?

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor.

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty.

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear (of Entrapment).

Who are youKnowing the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represented my characters made writing Julian Lackland easier. Their actions and reactions unfolded, and it was as if the story wrote itself.

So how do we get to know our characters and how they see themselves? Just as in real life, we meet and come to know them through conversations.

Conversations give shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal.

Our next installment in this series will focus on revealing character through conversations.

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Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation #amwriting

Mood and atmosphere exist in the inferential layer of the story. They are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to deploy inference in such a way that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, they can effortlessly understand where the author was going with that thought.

The aspects we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference, a word-picture that is shown rather than bluntly stated. Writers infer, readers interpret.

Books have two authors. The first author is obviously the writer.

The second author is intangible, a ghost, and doesn’t influence the story until after it is published. It is the intended reader whose imagination will recreate the story as they read the words on the page.

How a reader feels the emotion and absorbs the atmosphere is the interpretive layer.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful, or it becomes maudlin. A character’s mood is an emotional backdrop that begins with their experiences. It encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story.

The way emotional inference is conveyed on the page determines the success or failure of the author’s intention.

Let’s explore one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment, and it will include some supernatural elements. In classic Gothic novels, these elements are circumstantial and often later proven to be figments of the protagonist’s mind.

Also, the word Gothic in a novel description means a story will be fraught with emotion and intensity, and take place in a dark, forbidding setting.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing. These form the inferential layer.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

This is because the reader has suffered through emotions in real life and can easily recognize and relate to a character’s experience.

Consequently, for the atmosphere and mood of a setting to affect the reader’s interpretation of a story, the author must convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subliminal level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the emotional experience of the story specific. The atmosphere of a setting is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.

In Wuthering Heights, the atmosphere contributes to and magnifies certain characters’ obsessions. It lays bare hate, selfishness, and revenge. These elements are demonstrated in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.

The Gothic aspects of Wuthering Heights expose how upper-class Victorians benefitted from and perpetuated gender inequality within their society.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. These desolate places are wild and starkly beautiful. They are vast expanses, which although high in elevation, are dangerously boggy. These moorlands are often made of peat, a high-carbon-content muck composed of decomposing vegetation.

About Dartmoor, via Wikipedia:

Much more rain falls on Dartmoor than in the surrounding lowlands. As much of the national park is covered in thick layers of peat (decaying vegetation), the rain is usually absorbed quickly and distributed slowly, so the moor is rarely dry. In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as “feather beds” or “quakers” because they can shift (or ‘quake’) beneath a person’s feet. Quakers result from sphagnum moss growing over the water that accumulates in the hollows in the granite. [1]

Historically, we find many accounts of people drowning in bogs. Moorlands, as a setting for a novel, present a recognizable danger. People and animals are known to stumble into waterlogged places and drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times throughout the novel.

Thus, the environment of the moors sets the mood by raising the specter of murderous, untamed nature. Setting the story in that environment immediately implies infertility and death.

Another aspect of this setting that contributes to the atmosphere is graphic: Moorland is visually the same wherever you look, so the lack of visible landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In this novel, the setting conveys a powerful emotion: the fear of being both lost and trapped.

Most of the action occurs at Wuthering Heights, which is the manor from which the novel takes its name. The neighboring house, where other scenes are set, is Thrushcross Grange. They are neighbors, but a vast stretch of moorland lies between the two houses. These houses are far from neighboring towns, in their words, “far from the stir of society.” Distance emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood. Brontë made each house symbolic of its inhabitants.

Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be intense, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands.

Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are closer to town, and are passive, civilized, and calm.

That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters. It affects the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Thus, before we are even introduced to the characters’ motives or the plot, we find that the mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

And so, to wind this up, atmosphere and mood are intertwined. They are fundamental aspects of the inferential and interpretive layers of the story and getting them right takes a bit of work.

But making the effort can result in a novel that is deep and well worth reading.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dartmoor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dartmoor&oldid=959755158 (accessed June 14, 2020).

Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

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The literal layer #amwriting

McLane Pond, taken in July 2018

Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.

If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.

If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.

The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.

This surface is comprised of

  • Setting
  • Action and Interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.

Setting and props – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment
  4. Objects the characters interact with
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.

Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.

Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019

An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.

I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.

What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.

A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.

Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.

Depth changes observers into participants.

Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.

Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.

Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.

Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.

Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.

With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).

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Theme and Depth Through Polarity #amwriting

In writing, theme is the backbone of your story. It is an idea thread that connects disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can appear, creating opportunities for adding depth.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of the word-pond.

For example, a large theme that drives the action can be be something as common and subtle as family dynamics across generations. Those subtle tensions and interactions may not look like they are the story, but beneath the surface, families are fraught with emotions that create conflict.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life – a theme that explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death.

Consider the first three installments in the epic film series, “Star Wars.” It’s an ambitious action adventure set in a science fiction universe, and Luke Skywalker must save the world. But fundamentally, it’s the story of a family.

George Lucas conceived the tale by exploring the circle of life in the fractured relationship of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and how each man affected those people whom they came into contact with. Luke was a catalyst—his presence made things happen. Anakin embodied self-deception.

The same is true of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones book. It begins with a family and follows the circle of life and death.

If we learn anything from comparing these two epic series, it is that inside that overarching theme of the circle of life lies many common polarities.

Nowhere do we find more opportunities for conflict than within a family. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Sub-themes in the family saga will be:

Good vs. evil

Illusions vs. reality

Jealous vs. trusting

Justice vs. injustice

Love vs. hate

Order vs. chaos

Truth vs. falsehoods

Wealth vs. poverty

Young vs. old

These same themes that we employ in the small story of one family can easily be applied to a larger, more epic saga, such as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the “family” is an entire nation.

Looking beyond the obvious, we find the subtle polarities to instill into our work. Small subliminal conflicts highlight and support the theme. When you add texture to the narrative, you add depth.

Take pain—in my personal experience, the absence of pain was only appreciated once I had experienced true physical pain.

It’s like everything else we take for granted: we don’t think about pain if we have never felt it.

I find inspiration in the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. When I am looking for a way to add a particular emotion to a scene, I look up the word I want to convey and see what the opposites are. This is an affordable resource for the cash-strapped author because it can be purchased in paperback for between $9.00 and $12.00 USD.

Here are some polarities we can apply when fleshing out a character:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Synonyms and Antonyms and look up danger:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

Those are three “D” words that have great opposites. In one dark scene, we can convey peril, and the feeling of hopelessness a character might feel. The light and hope we offer at the end of the story shine brighter when they are contrasted against darkness and despair.

Think of Frodo and Sam on Mt. Doom after Gollum and the ring are destroyed. Darkness and sure peril are followed by light and salvation.

Polarity is an essential tool of world building. Small polarities in the interactions your characters have with each other add to the atmosphere and serve to show their world in subtle ways.

If you can’t afford to buy the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, the internet is your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This is a free resource.

I try to find ways to add depth by employing polarity. Each small polarity creates conflict, pushes my characters a bit further.

If I’m smart with the way I write it, small polarities will support and define my larger theme without beating the reader over the head.

As I say, this requires me to be skillful in the writing process, which is sometimes easier said than done.

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Creating Depth: Subtext #amwriting

NaNoWriMo is in full swing and sliding toward the finish. We have slightly less than two weeks left. My manuscript is inching toward completion. I have crossed the 50,000 word line, but the book is less than half finished. Many scenes that currently exist will likely be cut, and new scenes written that better show the story.

A lot of new authors are discovering words like “subtext” and wondering what that means. Subtext is a complicated aspect of the story, existing in the depths of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond that is Story.

Since nothing has changed since I last wrote on this subject, here is the reprise of the post Subtext, first posted here in March of 2018.


A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear—as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play.

The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events experienced by the characters.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, the subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes—subtext can be conveyed in dialogue, but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present, so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in the past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive that experience brings home the emotion and power of the event. It shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters, as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The clothes, the sleek sports car she drove—these were things that could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That, too, will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind, or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description.

Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees exactly what needs to be there. We aren’t distracted by unimportant things. When you mention a detail it becomes important, so only add elements the reader needs to know about.

Subtext, metaphor, and allegory: impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.


Credits and Attributions:

Subtext by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on 05 Mar 2018.

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017)

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