Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 21, 2018

Know Subtext? Got Subtext on the Page?

by Margie Lawson

How well do you read body language?

How well do you share subtext on the page?

Take this quick quiz, then enjoy the examples of writing fresh faces and voices below the quiz.

  1. Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal. T    F
  2. If people say the right words, it doesn’t matter how they say them. T    F
  3. Some people wait a few seconds before showing their nonverbal response. T   F
  4. Body language can only be interpreted one way. T    F
  5. People subconsciously mirror nonverbal behaviors of others. T    F
  6. If the words and body language contradict each other, the listener believes the body language. T   F
  7. Facial expressions convey 85% of the nonverbal message. T   F
  8. People can hide their emotions by keeping their face blank. T   F
  9. Lips carry more nonverbal messages than eyes. T    F
  10. When anxious, people touch their face more often. T    F


Did you take the quiz? 


Ready for the answers?

  1. Ninety-three percent of communication is shared through body language and dialogue cues. T    F

TRUE –  It’s a huge percentage in real life.

Use:  Writers need to be sure they’re including enough subtext, body language

and dialogue cues, on the page. And that it’s written in a fresh way.

Many writers struggle with writing fresh faces and voices. We’ve all read too

many lines with similar wording for wide eyes, tight lips, furrowed brows.


My body language course is online in January. Hellooo fresh faces and voices!


  1. If people say the right words, it doesn’t matter how they say them. T    F

FALSE -- The way we say words supports or negates the meaning.

Use:  Subtext. Subtext. Subtext.

Writers have unlimited ways to share the character’s truth through dialogue cues,

how the character says their words—tone, inflection, pitch, etc.  They have

unlimited ways to write them fresh too.


  1. Some people wait a few seconds before showing their nonverbal response. T   F

FALSE --   Nonverbal communication is immediate.

Use:  When a strong emotional stimulus presents, show your characters

nonverbal reaction immediately.


  1. Body language can only be interpreted one way. T    F 

FALSE – There are multiple ways body language can be interpreted.

Use:  You can add tension by having a character misinterpret a facial

expression, misinterpret a dialogue cue, misinterpret an action.


  1. People subconsciously mirror nonverbal behaviors of others. T    F

TRUE – and so fun!

Use: You can show a close relationship between characters by having them

mirror each others posture, gestures, facial expressions, and voice patterns.


  1. If the words and body language contradict each other, the listener

believes the body language.  T   F 

TRUE --  This happens all the time in real life.

Use:  When the words contradict the body language and/or the dialogue cues, people always believe the subtext, not the words.


  1. Facial expressions convey 85% of the subtext. T   F

FALSE – Facial expressions carry 30 to 50% of the psychological message, but

the other categories of body language are important too. 

Use:  Remember to include plenty of dialogue cues, posture, instinctive

reactions, touch, and spatial relationships too.


  1. People can hide their emotions by keeping their face blank. T   F

FALSE --  Faces are never blank. Lips twitch. Eyes narrow or widen. Mouths

open or tighten.

Use:  Don’t write a blank face. Share some tells, some micro-expressions.


  1. Lips carry more nonverbal messages than eyes. T    F

TRUE – The lips do more than eyes, they convey more emotion.

Use:  Include as many or more lip/mouth actions than eyes.


  1. When anxious, people touch their face more often. T    F

TRUE –  Self-Touch Behaviors – They’re not what you think. When people are

anxious, they touch their face (cheek, eyebrow, lips, nose, ear), or near their face (throat, jaw, back of neck, behind ear, hair), as well as their hands and arms. 

Self-Touch behaviors are body language polygraphs. Self-Touch may occur every 10 to 20 seconds.

 Use:  When a character is guilty, or telling a lie, or somewhere they’re not supposed to be, or something along those lines—you could show them touching their arm, neck, face. But don’t overdo it. A couple of times could work well.


HOW DID YOU SCORE?  Did you make a 100?  90?  80?

Learn how to write fresh body language and dialogue cues – and you’ll add more power to your scenes. You can use body language to deepen characterization, complicate scenes, and drive plot points too.

Any time you have an emotional scene—you need subtext, body language and dialogue cues. And turning points need even more subtext.

Enjoy these examples of body language and dialogue cues.


The Last True Cowboy, Laura Drake, 2-time Immersion Grad, Cruising Writers Grad, Bestselling Author

Facial Expressions:

He smiles. That warm, sexy, Austin-smile that always made me feel like we were in a bubble—just him and me.

In the harsh overhead lights, I can read every shade of emotion on her face:  fear, anger, exhaustion, but over them all, a layer of crushing powerlessness.

It must be sleep deprivation, because my insides turn to peanut butter, and I feel a silly smile spread on my face.

Dialogue Cues:

  1. My voice cracks like hot tea over ice.
  2. Her words speed up like a downhill roller coaster.
  3. Though it’s quiet, Austin’s voice slams into me, stopping me faster than a tie-down roping horse.


The Forgotten Ones, Steena Holmes, 2-time Immersion Grad, 2-time Cruising Writers Grad, USA Today and NYT Bestseller, International Bestseller

Facial Expressions:

  1. She rested her cheek on the child’s head, but the look in her eyes said not to mess with her.
  2. I catch a flash of something . . . regret, maybe? The emotion crosses her face too quickly to be sure.
  3. There’s a half grin on David’s face. A devil’s smirk, my mom would say.

Dialogue Cues:

  1. Judy didn’t stop drying a plate, but he heard the hesitation in her voice.
  2. And yet the disappointment in his voice, the dejected look on his face, increased my guilt tenfold.
  3. The resignation in Grace’s voice should warn me, but it doesn’t. It gives me hope—hope that I’ll learn more truth.


The Marriage Lie, Kimberly Belle, 5-time Immersion Grad, USA Today Bestseller, International Bestseller

I’m thrilled to share Kimberly Belle’s big news. ABC has put in development The Marriage Lie, inspired by Kimberly Belle’s bestselling book. Kudos to Kimberly!

Examples from The Marriage Lie:

Facial Expressions:

  1. Dave eases the car forward, dialing up the dazzle on his smile.
  2. Dad uses his drill-instructor voice--forceful, booming, and unambiguous. He turns, his expression morphs from fierce to fiercely concerned.
  3. But now she's watching me with an expression I know all too well, concern mixed with determination, one that says this is a fight she won't give up.

Dialogue Cues:

  1. I park my tone in neutral. “How so?”
  2. My tone is teasing, my voice stretched with a smile--my pathetic attempt at an apology even though I'm not sorry.
  3. It’s not just her words that suck the steam from my anger but also her tone, hesitant and unsure.


This blog is already long, so I won’t deep edit analyze those examples. They’re fresh. They carry power.

Want to learn more?

Check out my online course: Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist. It’s loaded with teaching points and examples. This class is offered in January.

You’ll learn the full range of body language and the six categories of dialogue cues, and challenge yourself to write them fresh, fresh, fresh.

Body Language in Real Life:

Writers can monitor and moderate their body language when pitching to agents and editors, speaking on a panel, presenting a workshop, doing a book signing.

I have a lecture packet that may interest some of you:  Powering Up Body Language in Real Life.

BLOG GUESTS:  Thank you so much for dropping by the blog today.

Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!” and you’ll have two chances to be a winner.

You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy.

Lawson Writer’s Academy – January Classes

  1. The BrainMap, Instructor: Shirley Jump
  2. Five-Week First Draft, Instructor: Koreen Myers
  3. Developmental Editing, Instructor: Rhay Christou
  4. Queries That Sell, and More, Instructor: Laura Drake
  5. The Sizzling, Scintillating Synopsis, Instructor: Suzanne Purvis
  6. Crazy-Easy, Awesome Author Websites, Instructor: Lisa Norman
  7. Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist, Instructor: Becky Rawnsely teaching Margie Lawson’s course

Please drop by my website to read course descriptions and register:  www.MargieLawson.com 

I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS Thursday night, at 9PM, and post them in the comments section.

Like this blog? Please give it a social media boost. Thank you.

I love blogging for WITS. A big extra-lovey hug and THANK YOU to the brilliant WITS gals.

Do you use dialogue cues and facial expressions?  Share one in the comments!

 *     *     *     *     *

Margie Lawson—editor and international presenter—loves to have fun. And teaching writers how to use her deep editing techniques to create page-turners is her kind of fun.

She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2018, in Phoenix, Denver, San Jose area, Dallas, Yosemite, Orange County, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Coolangatta, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com

53 comments on “Know Subtext? Got Subtext on the Page?”

  1. Gosh. I would love to know more about this. My tag?
    A lump in my throat makes my yes two syllables.

    1. Hello Alice Fleury --

      You want to know more? Easy.

      Two ways to learn more about getting subtext on the page with fresh body language and dialogue cues:

      1. Take this online class in January: Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist

      2. Do the lecture packet for that class. It's available all the time.

      Just drop by my website and click on Lawson Writers Academy -- or Lecture Packets.


      1. I visited your website and saw a suggestion for an order of the lecture packets. I'm following your suggestion and purchased Empowering Characters Emotions. Thanks for your post.

    2. PS to Alice Fleury --

      I forgot to comment on your line:

      A lump in my throat makes my yes two syllables.

      Kudos to you!

      You took a cliched visceral response and used it as a stimulus for a dialogue cue.

      Now that cliched visceral works well because it's part of an amplified response.

      And that beautiful sentence is perfectly cadenced too.

      Smart. Smart. Smart!

      Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Hello Lakota --

      You're sooo right.

      If you don't use body language and dialogue cues to share subtext, your characters are flat.

      Readers don't feel the emotion because that emotion is not on the page.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Thanks for covering this. I love powering up dialogue cues to give subtext! Wonderful examples too. Since you asked us to share, here's one from my WIP, a cozy mystery:

    "His tone was polite and dismissive at the same time. As if he couldn’t be bothered to work up much interest in me."

    1. Hello Multi-Immerison Grad Julie!

      It's always so fun to work with you and your characters. Looking forward to seeing you soon!

      Love your example!

      "His tone was polite and dismissive at the same time. As if he couldn’t be bothered to work up much interest in me."

    1. Hello Carol Z --

      I love teaching writers how to make their writing stronger.

      Check out my online courses and lecture packets. They're loaded with teaching points and examples that are explained.

      I bet you'd love what you learned!

  3. Excellent post! Here's an example from my cozy, A Season for Killing Blondes:

    "He stared, his blue eyes widening in surprise and something else I couldn't quite define. Amusement. Anticipation. Maybe even lust. He stopped talking to Uncle Paolo and gave me his full attention."

    1. Hello Joanne -

      Thank you.

      Great title: A Season for Killing Blondes:

      Love your amplified reaction too.

      "He stared, his blue eyes widening in surprise and something else I couldn't quite define.
      Amusement. Anticipation. Maybe even lust. He stopped talking to Uncle Paolo and gave me
      his full attention."

      Kudos to you!

    1. Hugs to Multi-Immersion Grad and RITA Winner Laura Drake --

      Ah -- Thank you.

      You know I love your writing and your stories.

      So great to visit you in Midland. Looking forward to getting together again sometime, somewhere!

    1. Hello Sylvia --

      You're thinking. Yay!

      I bet you'll love those books - and lots more by Margie Grads.

      I bet you'll love what you learn in my Body Language and Dialogue Cues class too!

  4. Thanks for the post, Margie! Subtext I think is one of the hardest things for me to capture on the page. Monica Corwin

    1. Hello Multi-Immersion Grad Monica Corwin -- alias Jane Gray 🙂

      Sometimes hard -- and always rewarding. Right?

      Looking forward to an Immersion with you and Todd in Columbus!

  5. Great column Margie! Always inspiring.
    Her hands twisted together, crumpling the envelope she still held in long elegant fingers. “I shouldn’t have come. “ I had choked back my tears, but big silent ones rolled down her cheeks.

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Rebecca Hodge --

      Always great to cyber see you. But it's been so long, I'd rather see you in person. Hope to see you in 2019!

      Great example. Thanks for posting!

  6. This skill will help improve my writing. I make an effort to show some sub-cues, however, as mentioned, it can become repetitious and thin.
    He drew in a slow, even breath of calm; his upper lip curled in an intense wrinkle of anger.

  7. First time I've read your blog, and what a great post to be greeted with! Thank you for taking the time! I scored 100% but the score gave me pause - how often do I write what I know?

    1. Hello Wendy --

      So glad you clicked in to check out Writers in the Storm.

      Your comment -- HOW OFTEN DO I WRITE WHAT I KNOW? -- speaks to the second part of my title for the blog.

      Got Subtext on the Page?

      I hope you check out my online courses. If you have questions about the courses or lecture packets -- email me.

  8. Great reminder to add subtext! I try to work it in on my rewrites. This is from my WIP, just after a confrontation between Frankie and her ex.
    Frankie left the kitchen, fingernails making divots in her palms.
    Thanks, Margie!

    1. Hello Live Vi-Carrie-ous --

      Glad you liked the blog.

      You gave the fingernails-in-palms piece a fresh boost with divots. It would be cool to add six more words that provided a parallel structure to your last six words.

      Here's how the parallel structure could work. Lots of options for the words.

      Frankie left the kitchen, fingernails making divots in her palms. (Anger) making _______ in her

      Just an idea.

      Thanks for posting.

  9. Since 93% of communication is non-verbal this comment would be really interesting if you could see me...

    But seriously, since I always use a limited POV, usually first person, I limit descriptions of body language and facial expression to what my protagonist would likely notice and remember as significant. Though sometimes he/she will record another character's reaction without fully realising its significance. Such details may tell us as much or more about the listener as about the speaker.

    1. Hello John --

      Love your humor!

      Always smart to filter everything through the POV character.

      You're right. The details the POV character notices deepens characterization about them and the other character.

      Thanks so much for posting!

  10. Hi Margie! Love this topic, but I think I'll be working on improving this in my writing for the rest of my life! Here's one from my romantic suspense WIP:
    Becky’s tone was straight sober despite her wobbly walk.

  11. Can always count on you for new insights to bring our writing to new heights. Thanks for helping us soar!

  12. Thanks Margie, Once again you gave us something to make us stop and think!! You're the greatest! Mucho love, Rhay

  13. Amazing Margie, I can only sing your praises after spending a second immersion with you—only two weeks ago! After our subtext lesson I tweaked my worked and I am watching scenes jump out of the page. I am planning to tattoo a Barbie with all of your clever ideas - especially Subtext-Subtext-Subtext!! Love from all in Oz - your twinnie Jean

  14. Barbara and Allan Pease's book, The Definitive Book of Body Language: The Hidden Meaning Behind People's Gestures and Expressions, is a handy reference for choosing the right body language. I learned so much from it, like what it means when someone holds up two fingers to make a V. For Churchill, it meant victory. In the '60s, it meant peace. For Julius Caesar, it meant "bring me five beers."

  15. Hi Margie! Great blog! I loved the examples. I've learned so much from your classes, especially Empowering Character's emotions. I'm looking forward to my first immersion retreat. See you Sunday!

  16. Love the quiz, Margie! It makes it easier for me to remember your tips. Someday I'll write subtext "naturally" — without sticky notes all around my computer screen to remind me how!

  17. Another practical and helpful post, Margie! I'm also excited about Kimberly Belle’s big news. I feel like I know her from the way you talk about her and share her work. Love it! xxx

  18. Hi Margie! I've just found you for the first time. Now I must subscribe to your blog/emails. This was great to read. 🙂

    My sample from Chapter One of my WIP:

    "Stay here," Harry said. He put his arm out, across my belly, as if he were a mother braking suddenly, determined to stop her child from going through the windshield with only the force of her thin limb.

    He started towards the tree, and I followed ten feet behind. Once there, he lit his lighter and held it aloft. "Ohhh..." It was more a groan than a word. He backed up without looking, and tripped over a tree root, righting himself just in time, arms flailing like a disconnected marionette's.Then he turned and threw up in the tall grass.

    Thanks, Margie. So glad to have found this, with you. I look forward to all I can learn from you.

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