I had read the book Pride and Prejudice, noting that the author, Jane Austen, didn’t give many visual cues as to clothing, body language or even where the scene was located. Instead, she focused more on dialogue. The movie, in contrast, contained a lot of visual cues, showing the Bennet family home, the family at dinner and dances. I particularly noticed subtle eye signals that the book didn’t convey: raised eyebrows, a terse look, and secret motions or glances between characters.
These visual cues were important and communicated something else about the characters, location or plot; they gave an unspoken subtext which created added layers of meaning for me.
The following points will give you ideas for adding subtext to your writing.
- Body language is sometimes overlooked. Your readers will gain information and insight if you include gestures. Watch your family or observe people’s actions at a restaurant. One valuable idea is to include a defining action that is particular to one character. For example, one friend often self-consciously flips her hair behind her ears. Sometimes body language contradicts what a person is saying. You can add this information without a lot of words.
- Scenery and location often set the tone of the story. Let scenery and location reveal something about the characters, hint at the plot, or supply crucial information about the city, town or house you are describing.
- While weather involves other senses, the strong visual component always adds a special dimension to writing. What mood does it convey? What does it reveal about your characters or situation? A dramatic change in weather might affect your plot or character. Write a scene with unexpected weather and see how it pushes your character in new directions, reflects an emotion or conveys a tone.
- Colours establish mood and evoke emotions. The gold of September evokes harvest; grey days of November evoke sadness and dreariness. What does it mean if your character paints his house yellow and maroon, in contrast to the house next door that has earth tones? What might your character reveal by the colours of his vehicle: an orange sports car, a black truck or a silver SUV? What memories come to mind as you think of your own favourite colour?
- Clothing provides important clues to your characters’ personalities, motivation, socioeconomic status, ethnic group and era in which they live. Including details about style, fabrics, colours, textures and accessories will enhance the reader’s understanding. You can gather valuable clues to enhance wardrobe from photographs, portraits, movies and magazines.
As you review your own writing, note how often you include subtext for your visual descriptions. Then experiment with new ideas to improve your work.
Sandi Somers is a former teacher and Instructor of English as a Second Language. She has lived in Colombia, South America, and has travelled widely. Currently her writing focuses on devotionals and inspirational articles. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org