Using Subtext with Winnie Griggs

A few months back, the sisters were talking about subtext and how to apply it to our writing. That struck a note with me because my chaptermate and fellow Harlequin writer Winnie Griggs had just presented a workshop on subtext, so I invited her to come talk subtext and how writers can put this tool in our toolbox to work for us. Take it away, Winnie 🙂

Let’s start off by discussing what subtext is and what it does for your story.  Subtext is an impression or conclusion conveyed by the author to the reader through inference rather than explicit communication.

Linda Segar, in the book Creating Unforgettable Characters, describes it this way:

“Subtext is what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines. Often characters don’t understand themselves. They’re often not direct and don’t say what they mean. We might say that subtext is all about underlying drives and meanings that are not apparent to the character, but that are apparent to the audience or reader.”

 A story without subtext feels flat and clichéd.  If every character says exactly what they mean, and they display all of their emotions openly,  we wouldn’t have a very interesting story.  It’s when they try to hide something from the others around them that things get interesting.

The surface text is targeted at our five senses.  Subtext, however, is perceived through other filters, those of our emotions, beliefs, experiences and that all elusive ‘gut’.  As I mentioned earlier it is made up of impressions and assumptions.

Adding subtext to a bit of dialogue or to a scene results in layering in an entirely different meaning to that which is portrayed on the surface. In other words, subtext is about communication between the author and the reader.  It may not be consciously noticed by the reader, but if it is done well, it’s never unfelt.

One of the decisions you’ll make as an author each time you employ subtext is whether you intend this to be visible to the other characters in the scene or if it is something shared ONLY between the author and the reader.  There is a place for both in your work.

So, how do you go about inserting subtext?  Let’s talk about four different methods, some more subtle than others.

 1.    When The Words Are At Odds With The Tone, Body Language, And/Or Actions

 This is one of the easiest forms of subtext to portray.  If you show a child sullenly saying “I’m sorry” when caught out in some mischief,  or get a terse “I’m fine” response from someone who then turns and storms from the room, then the reader understands that the character is not feeling the same emotion as the one they are expressing verbally.

 Here’s an example from my book Something More.  

Set up:  The heroine Elthia has just arrived at her destination via stagecoach and is about to disembark.

She picked up the basket that served as Poppy’s carrier, tightened her hold on her parasol, and shifted forward.  Moving to the door as if it were heaven’s gate itself, she barely avoided a tumble when the coach lurched and then stilled again.


She turned to apologize to the passenger she’d inadvertently jabbed with her parasol.  “Mr. Jenkins, I’m so–-”

“Watch out!”

Elthia pivoted, this time carefully pointing her parasol toward the floor.  “Oh dear, Miss Simms, I didn’t mean–-”

The matronly woman gave her a tight smile as she straightened her tipsily-angled hat.  “That’s all right, dear.  This is your stop, isn’t it?  You just go on now.  Don’t want to keep whoever’s meeting you waiting.”


“No, really, just go on.”

Elthia looked around.  Several other passengers were (enthusiastically) nodding agreement.  Really, this was (just) the nicest group of people.  Especially considering the fuss Poppy had made with his yipping eagerness to get to know the other passengers this past hour.

She gave them all a big smile, then stepped through the coach door, ready to begin her new life. 

Elthia obviously thinks everyone is just being friendly and is clueless to the undercurrents here.  But by observing the words and actions of the other passengers, the subtext here is that they are glad to see the last of her and her troublesome dog.

 2.    Actions Without Dialogue

A lingering look, an over-attentiveness, a sudden hyper-awareness can signal the attraction of one character to another without the author ever having to overtly refer to the emotion.

In the same way a flinch, an abrupt exit, a sudden stiffening can all signify one character’s fear or anger toward another.  Body language is a powerful tool in this area, and a skillful writer can communicate a wealth of subtext by its artful use.

3.    Staging Through Narrative Word Choice

This is subtext that is purely a dialogue between author and reader.  As an author, the word choices we use can set a particular mood and set expectations.  Let me give you one quick example.

Consider this bit of description from my book What Matters Most:

The heat of the day was softened by the dappled shade of the woods.  She and Toby were out to enjoy  an afternoon of picnicking and berry picking.  Lucy stepped over a knobby root and paused while Toby studied a shiny beetle lumbering up the side of a hickory tree. They’d been strolling along this leaf-carpeted trail for about thirty minutes now, and the creek crossing was just past that bit of leafy brush up ahead.  Some of the choicest blackberries in the county grew there.

 Now see what happens if I had made some different word choices

The hot summer sun slashed down through the moss-shrouded shadows of the woods.  She and Toby hoped to spend the afternoon gathering the much-needed berries that grew near the old creek.  Lucy stepped over a gnarled root and paused impatiently while Toby eyed a large beetle escaping up the side of a skeletal tree. They’d been picking their way along this twisting, rocky trail for about thirty minutes now – thank goodness the creek crossing was just past the clump of thorn bushes up ahead.  Some of the area’s most coveted berries grew there.

Though on the surface these are two views of the very same scene, just by the word choices the author has given the reader two very different expectations.  Even though there is no dialog and no internals in either scene, we as the reader make deductions about what is going on and what the characters are feeling.   In the first one, the reader will assume that the characters are enjoying themselves and that the outing is a pleasant one.  In the second example, the reader sees this as a much more ominous experience for our characters.

A more encompassing way to add subtext is to

4.Weave In Elements That Support Your Message or Theme Throughout Your Story

If your story is about loss, then there should be subtle references to various kinds of loss and the effect they have on the character all through your story.  These can be almost invisible to the reader on the surface – a minor reference to misplaced keys, a ripped piece of clothing that must be thrown out, losing a place in line – snippets that have small individual weight but that will have a subconscious cumulative affect on your reader.

 There are other ways to insert subtext, of course, but those are the primary ones.

Remember, subtext lends emotional depth and increases reader engagement with your work.  It’s what elevates your work from product to art.

So let’s try a little exercise.  Here’s a bare bones, talking heads type passage:

I’m home,” Jeff said as he entered the bedroom.

 Alice hastily closed the closet door.  “You’re early.  I wasn’t expecting you for another hour.” 

Now let’s add a bit of subtext:

I’m home,” Jeff said as he entered the bedroom and loosened his tie.  He wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming conversation, but he’d put it off for too long, as evidenced by the latest credit card bill.

 Alice hastily closed the closet door, but not before he saw the overflowing shopping bags from Niemen’s crowded inside.  “You’re early.”  She said that as if accusing him of a crime.  “I wasn’t expecting you for another hour.”

And see what happens when I change just the subtext:

“I’m home,” Jeff said as he entered the bedroom and loosened his tie.

 Alice hastily closed the closet door, her heart thudding in her chest.  She prayed he hadn’t noticed the duffel she’d shoved way in the back.  “You’re early.  I wasn’t expecting you for another hour.”   Had he somehow guessed she was planning to run away? 

See how we get entirely different moods and nuances from the layering in of subtext?

 Now, I’ll turn it over to you – do you have any questions about subtext or different takes on the subject you’d like to share?  Oh, and feel free to do this little exercise above and post your version – always fun to see what others can wring out of that simple scene.

I’m going to be giving away a copy of Handpicked Husband (or any of my backlist books) to TWO folks who leave comments today.

Winnie Griggs has written historical and contemporary romances for three different lines.  A small town girl herself, Winnie’s books focus on family and community and matters of faith – all subjects that are near and dear to her heart.  In fact, the tag line on her website reads “Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace”

Winnie has been married for over 35 years to her college sweetheart and together they have raised four children and a too-numerous-to-count assortment of dogs, cats, fish, hamsters, turtles and 4-H sheep.  Besides reading and writing, Winnie’s  favorite activities include cooking, exploring flea markets and pretending the growing army of dust bunnies who have invaded her home will disappear if she just ignores them.

Winnie loves to hear from readers.  You can contact her via her website or find her on facebook at

24 responses to “Using Subtext with Winnie Griggs”

  1. Brilliant post, Winnie! I love the way subtext can be conveyed not only between characters on the page but also between the author and the reader. I think that really helps readers connect with the story. I’m off to experiment with this (while studiously ignoring those dust bunnies).

    Thanks for bringing Winnie to the Sisterhood, Liz!

  2. Gwyn says:

    Great post. I adore well-written subtext. It conveys so much on a subliminal level, dragging the reader deeper into the story. Loved the examples, especially the clueless Elthia. I think I might know her . . . *G*

  3. Thank you for visiting us today, Winnie, and for explaining sub-text so clearly. I love your examples. I’m going back to my wip and use your tips.

    Thank you, Liz, for asking Winnie to visit.

  4. WOW!!! What a great post! Thanks so much for being here, Winnie. I love subtext. It adds such depth. And I’d never really thought about it in terms of the characters themselves not really knowing what they want or what they are trying to say. I’m bookmarking this now.

  5. June Love says:

    Winnie, thanks for being here. You’ve really opened my eyes to subtext. I knew there were times when I didn’t want my heroine to realize something, but your example with Elthia brought it together for me. BTW, loved that example. She sounds like a wonderful heroine. It’s amazing how using the right word can change the climate of a scene. This has been a great learning post for me. Thank you!

    Thanks, Liz, for inviting Winnie.

  6. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you for being here today and the explanations.
    In my WIP my heroine is an Intelligence office, an interrogator, well aware of body language and the spoken deception. Inserted into a situation to find a bad guy she has to quiet her body and carefully pick her words to prevent her own deceptions from being discovered. Subtext abounds and I am never satisfied with my efforts to do it correctly. Only shear stubbornness to get this fricking thing finished keeps me from deleting it from my hard drive.

  7. This is such a fabulous post! I love subtext when a character is saying one thing and feeling another. It adds such an emotional richness/connection for the reader. And thanks for the reminder that subtext can be conveyed via descriptions as well. Descriptions tend to be one of my weaknesses because I’m all about getting on with the story rather than setting the scene. But your post reminded me that I shouldn’t be rushing those descriptions…there’s a lot that can be “said” through them.

  8. I enjoy using the word “Fine” as an example of subtext.

    Him: How was your day?
    Her: Fine.

    There are so many possibilities for what she means. One of my children has a language impairment—she takes every word literally. But she has learned about the word fine; “do you mean the Good Fine or the Bad Fine, Mom?”

    I think I may rely on your first method too much. I’ll need to incorporate the other three more.

    • Hi Elizabeth – we all have some methods that we rely on more than others, at least I know I do. It’s always good to make ourselves stretch and look for other ways to nuance our writing.

  9. Wow, Winnie, great examples of subtext. Really enjoyed seeing the before and afters. I’m already picturing how I could use it to trim sections of introspection! Thanks so much for this!

  10. Great post, Winnie! Thanks for taking the time to explain in such detail.

  11. Kelley Bowen says:

    Great post! I am in love with subtext – In an acting class(hundreds of years ago :), we did scenes with basic dialogue A: Hi B: How are you? A: Good. B: Thank you Everything was in the subtext. The scene (even with the exact same language) differed every time.

    I’m definitely going to take a look at using #4. Theme is a toughie-what a great idea to build that with subtext. Fantastic. Thx, Winnie,

    • Kelley – I can see where an acting class could REALLY help with the whole issue of subtext. And that method #4 relating to theme is the one I struggle the most with, often layering it in in one of the final passes through after the first draft is done.

  12. Elisa Beatty says:

    Fabulous post! Really useful and smart! I will pass on the link to this one!


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  • Darynda Jones: I love this! I learned this fairly early as well. I also learned that sometimes I just have too many...
  • Heather McCollum: Thanks, Jenn! I forgot that you are also a free lance editor! Do you do both developmental and line...
  • Jennifer Bray-Weber: Very sound advice, Heather. I have done the same technique and often recommended it to some of...
  • Darynda Jones: Bwahahaha! I was so wondering where that was going! Did NOT see that coming. Great job, Evelyn!
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