Writers in the Storm

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November 22, 2023

6 Questions To Go Deeper With Subtext In Fiction

by Lisa Hall-Wilson

Looking for a quick effective way to take your writing up a notch? Subtext. K.M. Weiland calls it the black belt of fiction writing. When you can replace spoken dialogue with silent communication, with familiarity, shared goals, etc. you invite your readers deeper into the story world.

We employ silent communication all the time in real life. If you’ve been in a long-term relationship of any kind – think back to your parents, siblings, highschool, college, your marriage – all of these relationships (both professional and personal) will utilize silent communication – subtext.

What is Subtext?

Subtext is silent communication. It’s the body language we use like posture, gestures, and subtle movements. It’s not just what is spoken aloud, it’s also the tone of voice, the intonation, cadence, emphasis, and affects on our voice. It includes facial expressions and micro expressions – smiles and winks, but more subtle shifts in eyebrows, eye movement, or quirks of our mouths.

Subtext also employs shared familiarity about a past event or experience at both an intimate personal level and wider shared cultural knowledge. And this silent communication can happen in place of spoken dialogue, or it can happen alongside spoken dialogue signalling a deeper meaning (what’s said between the lines).

Subtext can add a layer of realism and authenticity to our stories and is a necessary technique when using deep point of view.

One aspect of subtext that’s not often explored on blogs is how power or authority applies a filter to subtext. Those who have spent time learning about domestic violence, abuse, and coercion will understand the dynamics about power imbalances, but let’s dive into that a bit and get curious about how we can leverage this in our fiction.

How Does Power Affect Subtext?

Power and authority have the ability to directly or indirectly influence the behavior of others. Power and authority are situational. One can have power and authority in the workplace, but none at home, or vice versa. There are some who exercise power and authority everywhere they go.

The thing about power and authority is that inevitably, there are those with it and those without. It creates an imbalance. And sometimes that imbalance is OK because the power is not abused, it’s not used to coerce or influence, it’s used to protect. That imbalance, good or bad, MUST create a filter for our character’s intuition, fears, thoughts, priorities, interpretations, and actions.

So, how do we capture that authentically in fiction? It requires a few different tools from our writer toolbox: subtext, body language, spoken dialogue, internal dialogue. And when we try to do this in deep pov, it adds more complexity by removing the author/narrator voice.

6 Questions To Ask Your Characters About Power Imbalances

There must be consequences. If trying to decide which side of a power imbalance your character finds themselves on, there are some questions below to help you get started. Pick one or two of these questions and answer them – for yourself. Get curious about how the answer to questions would FEEL? I like to jot down 3-5 possible emotions that would spring up from that. It’s OK if they’re opposing emotions.

How would that emotion manifest physically? How does your character suppress their emotions – is there a part of the body where that emotion is contained (in their throat, shoulders, back, stomach)? Is this emotional reaction helpful? What would be some helpful thoughts to help them through this situation? In what ways might the character condemn themselves for thinking or feeling this way – even if they’re the only one who knows what they’re feeling and thining? What would a better person do? Why don’t do they do that?

1. What’s At Stake If They Say No?

Is your character free to say no? The request might be spoken aloud, but the character might also need to employ interpretation of body language or subtext (which is sometimes misinterpreted – there’s room for that too). If your character refuses, will the consequences be immediate or down the road (and perhaps later subverted)? Will the consequences be overtly connected to their refusal? If they face the loss of something, what will the impact of that loss be?

2. Is Saying No An Option?

If your character is facing a situation where saying ‘no’ isn’t an option (in the character’s perception. This of course would apply to outright threat of physical violence, but in the context of power imbalance does the character feel free to say no?), how does that make them feel? What’s their best plan for getting through this, if they would otherwise refuse but can’t?

How is that emotion going to be shown in their body language (posture, expression, gestures, tone of voice)? If they need to hide that emotion, there has to be a consequence to that suppressed emotion – what will it be?

3. What Kind Of Person Are They?

Is the power imbalance personal, professional, social, economical (is the power imbalance limited to a particular situation or setting or is it over their whole life). Do they have an escape from this power imbalance?

If the power imbalance is at work, how do they compensate for those feelings when they’re not at work? Do they take a perceived (or actual) persecution or abuse out on others when out from under that power influence? What’s important to them? What kind of person do they want to be? Are they that person – what do they need to learn/do to change?

4. Is the Power Misinterpreted or Abdicated?

Is the character’s perception of the power over them true – is their perception accurate? Do they have power in a situation, but choose not to use it for a reason? A husband who believes his wife has one foot out the door thinks she has all the power – his perception might be that he’s powerless to make/convince her to stay. What would that thinking lead to (actions, emotions, thoughts)? That wife might believe he doesn’t find her attractive, so in her perception he has all the power. What might her reaction be to that situation – would she just give up and constantly shame herself, or would she hit the gym, go to the hairstylist, read self-help books?

Would her need to remain proactive, feed his insecurity? They’ve both abdicated their power because of shame. Oooh – what a tangled web we weave.

5. How Is Touch Employed To Convey Power?

Touch is an expression of authority and power, and relationship. We choose who we allow close enough to touch us. There are some benign touches that are socially acceptable: a handshake, a kiss on the cheek in greeting, an inadvertent brush as you pass another, being squeezed in a crowded space (like an elevator), etc.

Touch can be reassuring and comforting, flirtatious, polite greeting, inviting or intimidating, claiming or denouncing, teasing or withholding, promising or threatening. Some use their bodies to intimidate by leaning over, standing too close, blocking escape without actually touching (and building in deniability for themselves).

Think about the power of a raised hand over someone cringing waiting for the expected blow to land? The fear invoked by a touch too harsh, too hard – the grabbing of a jaw, the squeezing of cheeks, the harsh handshake, etc.

What of the man who notices another staring at his date? How would he demonstrate possession without being overt? He might put his hand on the small of her back or around her waist, or take her hand in his without asking. Showing he has her permission to touch. There is lots communicated in this way.

Withholding touch is also about a power imbalance. What of the wife who puts on lingerie, makes a point of prettying up for bed. And her husband notices the lingerie, and simply turns the light off and rolls over? This is another withholding of touch that communicates power imbalance.

Can you use either the power of touch or of withholding touch to communicate authority and power?

6. Who Is Exercising Power and Authority?

We all write characters who have power and authority in various settings in our novels. What tools do you have to SHOW they have power and authority, without resorting to the narrator/author voice explaining or summarizing the situation for readers? How would they use that power and authority productively, and how would it be abused?

Once a character has to pull rank, so to speak, how are they left feeling afterwards? Do they feel powerful? Drained? Frustrated? What’s their leadership goal? What kind of person do they want to be, and does that power corrupt them at all? Can they see that corruption, and what will they do to prevent it?

Power Imbalance In Action

From Fast and the Furious

I love this scene between Dom and Letty where Dom finally gets a chance to talk to Letty after believing her dead. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hAfJb3oHo4

He has power over her – her memories – their shared history together. She’s lost her memory of those things. But what does he do with that power? At first, he touches the car in place of her. Then the touches get more and more intimate. He pulls aside the tank top strap to show a scar that’s otherwise hidden.

She tolerates his growing boldness, but in the end, the part with hands extended towards one another, not even fingertips touching. Letty has power to reject him, but Dom’s got the greater balance of power in this scene because he has intimate knowledge she doesn’t and she feels like she lacks something.

From The Devil Wears Prada

The "Gird Your Loins" scene from The Devil Wears Prada is very illustrative. It’s over-the-top, but watch the body language and actions of everyone ELSE. How could you incorporate this into your scenes? Watch the way body posture changes, defers, etc. And the juxtaposition of Anne Hathaway’s character who has no knowledge of the ultimate power structure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PjZAeiU7uM

From Erin Brockovich

This clip from Erin Brockovich is fascinating. Watch for the power shift. Watch the change in body language, the posture, gazes, tone of voices – every character in the scene is aware of the shift at different times. It shows what’s important to that character. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpISHolWtKs

From Yellowstone

In this scene from Yellowstone, initially it’s hard to see who holds the balance of power. But very quickly, the hierarchy is reestablished and the one with the actual power stands up to the bravado. Watch for the shift in posture, tone, volume. Where does the threat come in – a threat without any physical violence. What one character stands to lose is what gains compliance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5e1Mya1uUK0

Which of these six questions resonates with you and your current WIP? In what way would using subtext and power/authority help immerse the reader in your character’s lived experience?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers. 

She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view. 

Image Credits:

Top image from Depositphotos.

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17 comments on “6 Questions To Go Deeper With Subtext In Fiction”

  1. Lisa, this is a fantastic post. So much valuable information and examples.

    When it comes to body language, I have to be careful. I tend to overuse facial features, like eyebrows.

    1. I am fairly confident that every writer has some bit of movement or and expression or sound that they way overuse. lol My characters are constantly shoving their hands in pockets. :/

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Again, this is a great post on how to add depth to our wruting. Thank you for showing us ways to add subtext with detailed instruction and examples. I forget to use this power struggle in my writing and its a nice tool in my writing toolbox to sharpen. 🙂

    Have a festive Thanksgiving!

  3. These are great questions, Lisa. My WIP is all about power who has it, who thinks they have it but don't, and how they express it. Your examples are impactful. Your questions, particularly the one about who is exercising the power and authority and how that's expressed--priceless. Thank you.

  4. I love using subtext and look for it in movies, but I never thought about subtext as from a power stance. I saw it more as fear, but then that can easily come from the fear of another's power as much as it can from a character's wound, which can also be associated with power used against the character in the past.

    I loved the movie Disclosure where at one point, the Michael Douglas character who's been accused of rape, says, "When did I ever have the power?" Huge turning point!

    Fantastic posting. Going on my Recommended Reading page on my website!

    1. That's great! Yes, those in power often use the fact that nothing overt was said, there was no physical contact, to imply there was no coercion. Or that someone not say no, means they've consented. I'm glad times are changing, and these can be very powerful emotional turning points.
      Not familiar with that movie, I'll go look it up! Thanks.

      1. Jenny - I think we just are so used to gauging this day-to-day, or it's something overlooked in familiar places that we only notice in blatant situations. But that power dynamic affects even the words we choose. It's pretty interesting stuff.

    1. Right! Once you start looking for it, that power dynamic is in many many scenes. I've really gotten curious about the shifts in power dynamic in a scene and the emotional consequences of that shift. "Power"ful stuff. lol

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