Monday, October 13, 2014

The Art of Subtext by Betsy St. Amant

Betsy St. Amant

Hey readers, don’t you just love when a story’s layers and secrets develop into rich subtexthidden meaning? We delight at the metamessages of the characters' dialogue or body language, and we connect. Author Betsy St. Amant is here today to offer advice on including subtext in our fiction. Enjoy! ~ Annette

  The Art of Subtext
by Betsy St. Amant
I’m an avid reader. Growing up, I read a lot of books. Most of them were good. Some were great. And rarely was there a book I found that I just didn’t want to finish. (I’ve only ever thrown one across the room. ::wink::)

And then there were novels that excelled above the rest. These were the novels I read that stayed with me for days, weeks, even months after The End. The characters and stories lingered in my heart and I could never place why—until I started learning the industry for myself and realized the magic factor. That secret ingredient that made those stories rise above the others and touch places in the reader’s heart that other novels couldn’t quite graze.


By definition, subtext is “an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.” The use of subtext in novels changes everything, providing an extra layer of depth and richness of meaning that connects the character and reader in a unique way.

I’ve found the best way to learn subtext is in watching movies or TV shows. One of my favorite examples is in the popular TV show Friends, when Joey has discovered he has feelings for Rachel that go beyond friendship. But he won’t tell her; he’s trying to fight those feelings out of loyalty to his best friend and Rachel’s ex, Ross. There’s a really powerful scene in one episode where Rachel is curled up in the recliner, watching the horror movie Cujo. Joey comes in the apartment and sits down to watch with her, and Rachel insists he comes closer because the movie is freaking her out. At a particularly intense point of the movie, Rachel shrieks and burrows into Joey’s shoulder. He puts his arm around her and holds her and she looks up at him and asks “Aren’t you scared?” Joey swallows hard and says, “Terrified.”

I love that moment because they are talking about two entirely different things. Rachel is obviously talking about the movie, Joey is talking about his heart for Rachel and the proximity he has with her in that moment and how everything is changing.

It’s powerful and connects the “reader” (or viewer) to Joey (the character) because we know what he means, but Rachel doesn’t. It gives us a secret with the character that makes him (or her) more real and relatable.

That connection is what causes characters and stories to linger long after the book has been shut and tucked away on a bookshelf.

I try to use subtext in my novels in that way—be it relational subtext, spiritual subtext, etc—in order create a lasting attachment with my readers, and to provide them with an opportunity to go deeper than the surface level of the story.

The art of using subtext comes in remembering that subtly is key. You can’t beat your reader over the head with obvious subtext, or it becomes author intrusion. You have to trust your reader to get it—and trust your characters to share it appropriately. ::smile::


Betsy St. Amant has a heart for three things:  chocolate, new shoes, and sharing the amazing news of God’s grace through her novels. She lives in Louisiana with her adorable story-telling young daughter, a collection of Austen novels, and an impressive stash of Pickle Pringles. A freelance journalist and fiction author, Betsy is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and is multi-published in Contemporary Romance via Love Inspired and Harper Collins (Zondervan). When she’s not reading, writing, or singing along to a Disney soundtrack with her daughter, Betsy enjoys inspirational speaking and teaching on the craft of writing.

All's Fair in Love and Cupcakes
Kat inspected rows of the same old cupcakes. They seemed to blink back at her, as if they knew she was capable of so much more.

Kat Varland has had enough of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.

At twenty-six years old, Kat is still living in the shadows of her family in Bayou Bend, Louisiana. Still working shifts at her Aunt Maggie’s bakery. Still wondering what to do with her passion for baking and her business degree. And still single.

But when Lucas Brannen, Kat’s best friend, signs her up for a reality TV bake-off on Cupcake Combat, everything Kat ever wanted is suddenly dangled in front of her: creative license as a baker, recognition as a visionary . . . and a job at a famous bakery in New York.

As the competition heats up, Lucas realizes he might have made a huge mistake. As much as he wants the best for Kat, the only thing he wants for himself—her—is suddenly in danger of slipping away.

The bright lights of reality cooking wars and the chance at a successful career dazzle Kat’s senses and Lucas is faced with a difficult choice: help his friend achieve her dreams . . . or sabotage her chances to keep her in Louisiana.