Category Archives: Writing Tips


The Art and Purpose of Subtext

Image: a woman hides behind a curtain, only her hands and shoulder visible.
Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author DiAnn Mills (@diannmills).

The Art and Purpose of Subtext

Subtext refers to characters who talk about one thing but really mean something else, and they both know it. And we’ve all done it, right? The subtext is the real conversation hidden by surface talk and is the core of the communication.

Through subtext, writers can provide information laced with sarcasm, heartbreak, or humor. And it always deepens the story with unpredictable outcomes and emotion. Characters engaged in the conversation know the hidden meaning; it’s an unspoken conversation below a verbal conversation and more valuable than the spoken word.

Why not have the characters state the obvious instead of flirting with the real topic? Isn’t it a waste of time for the writer and the reader? But communication that fulfills only one purpose is like serving a meal with no salt. The result might satisfy the tummy, but the experience is tasteless. Dialogue written without layers reduces the reader’s engagement in the story.

Characters might use subtext to show discretion:

  • They fear the wrong people understanding the real conversation could cost them.
  • They haven’t the courage to directly express what is on their hearts or minds.
  • The underlying message is only for a select few.
  • The character has an ulterior motive.

The value of subtext for the writer:

  • Provides information to the reader without telling
  • Adds stress, tension, and conflict to the scene
  • Reveals another layer of plot and/or pushes the plot forward
  • Shows insight into the character
  • Offers mystery and intrigue
  • Foreshadows a future event
  • Allows the reader to play a role in determining the dialogue’s meaning
  • Shows the reader that the writer respects their intelligence
  • Encourages the reader to pay attention

Here’s a subtext example.

Lucy tugged on her favorite red dress for her anniversary dinner. Twenty pounds ago, she looked like a siren, but her current bulges churned her stomach. Giving birth to three kids didn’t help. Grabbing her evening clutch, she joined Jake in the living room.

“Does this make me look fat?” she said.

“Of course not. You are as beautiful as the day we took our vows.”

The subtext behind Lucy’s question: Do you still love me even though I’ve gained weight?

The subtext behind Jake’s response? I don’t care about your weight, and I love you more every day.

Subtext is especially effective when characters have opposing desires and yet are forced to communicate with each other. Better yet, when they’re put into a situation where they must work together to achieve a common goal that’s crucial to each, for different reasons.

Here’s an example of subtext when a real and open conversation could cost the characters more than they’re willing to pay.

The CEO called Melissa to the podium. She stopped at Tom’s chair in the boardroom and bent to his ear. “My proposal seals the deal with the company, and I know my raise and promotion is in the works,” she said. “Too bad, Tommy. I’ll be your boss.”

He bit back his urge to respond with sarcasm. She made him want to eat nails. “Good for you.”

Melissa continued to the head of the table, but the CEO stopped her. “Melissa, I have a quick announcement to make.”

She nodded and waited. Perfectly poised.

The CEO took the podium. “Melissa has developed an innovative program to streamline our inner office communications. She is ready to give the presentation, but I want to announce the other person who will be helping her drive this forward.” He paused. “Tom, come on up here. I’m thrilled you’ll be working right alongside Melissa. Your attention to detail is just what we need. This project will be your 9 to 5 job.”

Tom approached the CEO and shook his hand. “Thank you, sir. You won’t be disappointed.”

Melissa gave Tom an icy smile. “Congratulations. The idea of working alongside you for the next three months is a bonus. I look forward to learning from you.”

Tom’s head pounded at the thought of what lay ahead. “Thank you for all you’ve done for the project. I look forward to combining our goals to make the new program successful.”

The CEO raised his hand. “A round of applause for this new team. I expect we will see great achievements from Tom and Melissa.” He gestured at the two. “If you finish the project before the three-month period, I’ll have a handsome bonus for each of you.”

The above scenario paints a road of emotional turmoil for Tom and Melissa. They must work together for the good of the project and the company. Plus, a bonus for completing the job early sounds amazing. Yet how will they deal with their differences in an environment that expects and demands they remain civil to each other?

Francine Prose once said, “When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are NOT saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we ARE saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of badly written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.”

More than a dialogue technique, subtext is amazing fun for the writer. See if you can level up your behind the scenes game.

Writing Great Suspense Novels

Seven Tips on Writing Great Suspense Novels

(excerpts from Post by Tony Lee Moral on The Writer’s Dig, May 15, 2017)

  1. The number one rule of suspense is to give your reader information, i.e., there is a bomb in the room or there is a ghost in the room.
  2. Use counterpoint contrast. Per Alfred Hitchcock, “Suspense doesn’t have any value unless it’s balanced by humor.” Comedy can make your writing more dramatic and give your reader a chance to reflect on the suspense.
  3. A good story should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension.
  4. Never use a setting as a simple background. Use it 100%. Incorporate them into the drama.
  5. At the same time, avoid the cliché in your locations, such as staging a murder in a dark alleyway or at night. The sense of the unexpected and the idea that turmoil can erupt at any moment, will keep your readers on their guard.
  6. Keep your story moving. Use sudden switches in location to change the setting and promote suspense drama changes. Set up the locations at the beginning and use them for action later on.
  7. Avoid stereotypes whether it is the character or the plot. Make your villains attractive, so they can get near the victims.


Body Language As A Tag

Body Language as a TAG

  1. Use body language to add depth to dialog.
  2. Use it because more than 50% of human communication is non-verbal.
  3. Use it to show how your character’s emotions affect his or her actions.
  4. Use it to help you show rather than tell your reader everything.
  5. Use it in moderation. If overused, it can slow your story down.

A few ideas from

Anger or aggression: shake fist, point finger, stab finger, slam fist on a table, flushed face, throbbing veins in neck, jutting chin, clench fists, clench jaw, lower eyebrows, squint eyes, bare teeth, a wide stance, tight-lipped smile.

Boredom: yawn, avoid eye contact, tap feet, twirl a pen, doodle, fidget, slouch.

Confusion: tilt head, narrow eyes, furrowed brow, shrug.

Defensive: cross arms or legs, arms out with palms forward, hands up, place anything in front of body, hands in pockets.

Embarrassment: blush, stammer, cover face with hands, bow head, trouble maintaining eye contact, look down and away, blink back tears.

Fear: hunch shoulders, shrink back, mouth open, widen eyes, shake, tremble, freeze, rock from side to side, wrap arms around self, shaky hands.

Jealousy: tight lips, sour expression, narrow eyes, crossed arms.


Deep POV Characters


This is a technique that draws us in, so that as the reader we feel one with the POV character. It is as if you are that person. Authors like Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven King), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), and Cassandra Clare (Shadowhunters) use this technique effectively.

It is best used in novels that seek to thrill the reader or take them on an emotional journey. It is a technique that cannot be perfected overnight.

The Basics:

Limit your character’s knowledge and only reveal the things your character actually knows to keep readers engaged. Cut our filter words like “thought, wondered, or saw.” Just state it, e.g. She wondered how bad the tornado had been. VS. How bad had it been?

Limit your dialog tags. Use attribute tags instead, e.g. “Are you okay?” she asked. VS.  Are you okay?” She reached for his hand, but he pulled it away.

Employ the ultimate show, and don’t tell. Deep POV is all about getting into your character’s head, so avoid as many instances of telling as possible.

Don’t use the passive voice. No action should be done unto someone. Someone should always do it., e.g. Her shoulder was hit. VS. He hit her shoulder.

Be careful when identifying characters. In Deep POV, your character relationships aren’t easy. Use dialog when possible, e.g. Not “John, her brother, stood next to her” but “John stood next to her.” Or “Eric, this is my brother John.”

Relate backstory with memory flashes.