Read Your Own Subtext

My last book, Take What You Want, got a lot of reviews that made me smile, but one in particular really made me punch the air and say, “Yes! This is what I was doing! Yes!” It was from The Brunette Librarian, and the snippet in question said:

Josh and Ellen are realistic, down to earth, and you easily fall in love with both of them. It may sound silly, but I liked how dedicated each was to their chosen professions. Most girls aren’t the Anastasia from Fifty Shades, they are more like Ellen. Hardworking, honest, and once in a while ready to throw caution to the wind.

As writers, we know that we’re telling stories within stories within stories. There’s the main plot. The subplots. The little tiny sub-sub-sub-plots that we threw in just for our own amusement that no one else may ever pick up on.

And then there’s the subtext. The things you imply without ever entirely stating them aloud.

Whether you write fantasy or futuristic or paranormal or contemporary, you are creating a world in which your characters operate. With little tiny choices and seemingly insignificant details, you establish the parameters of that world. And through subtle—or not-so-subtle—manipulations of those details, you can impart a message on your readers that goes beyond the moral of your story. You can show them your values, and a glimpse of the kind of world you want to live in by letting your characters live in it.

Personally, I want to live in a world where women are empowered. Where women pursue careers in the sciences, and have professional goals and ambitions that go beyond just getting their man. So when I write a female character, I do my best to give her those things. Her career may not be a main plot line in the story, but with any luck, the passion she has for a pursuit outside of her relationship comes across.

I want to live in a world where people are accepted regardless of their sexual orientation, so I try to add in characters of various orientations, or drop in the word ‘partner’ occasionally, or try not to have characters assume other characters are straight all the time. I want to live in a world where we respect animals, so I sneak in the occasional character who never orders or makes food containing meat. I want to live in a world where scientific literacy and school smarts are valued, so I create characters who are professors or graduate students or researchers or teachers.

I decide what kind of world I want to portray. And then, to the best of my ability, I create it, and use it as the backdrop against which I tell my stories of love and sexual awakening and self-acceptance.

So the next time you’re plotting out a new story, consider your subtext. Decide what sort of world you wish were the norm, and then create it. Let your readers live in it, so that someday, maybe, they’ll start thinking of it as the norm as well. If you’re editing a completed manuscript, parse out the choices you made and see if they reflect the messages you’d like your readers to receive.

In other words, read your own subtext.

Because the messages you convey often lie well beyond the words you actually say.

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