Unlocking the Power of Subtext and Nuance in Novel Writing

This week, Bryan is learning out loud as he explores the meaning of subtext and nuance in writing. How can you use these hidden tools to elevate your writing? Hint: You’re probably already doing it…

I’ve said this before: I sit down and do it and never ask how or why. That attitude is great until it’s not, and this is one of those times.

When Isabella handed me this assignment I smiled. Easy Peasy, I said. Yes, I actually said peasy. Not a problem. Just another day. Write it up and send it out. Just call me the writing machine. Insert guy ego here. 

But then I gave it a closer look and realised Easy Peasy were not the best words to use. What the hell is a subtext, I asked. Are you sure that’s how you spell nuance?

So I did some research. Found some examples and realised I’ve been doing this all along. Maybe there’s hope for me yet. 

I will start with the hardest one first: NUANCE. 

On the plus side, it’s a cool sounding word. I could see it as a possible pen name: Nuance Fagan

Stop laughing, Isabella!!!

On the minus side, I’m still not sure I have the damn thing figured out but according to my research the description of nuance comes down to two things: Shades of Meanings and Subtle Differences.  

Here’s an example that I found helpful: 

The child is stubborn vs. The child is determined.

On one hand we might argue they’re the same, but when we look a little closer we discover we’re looking at two entirely different kids, all because of a little shade of meaning and a tiny subtle difference of words.

I’m slowly getting it. Nuance has to do with real life instead of stereotypical. It’s a subtle way the writer shows who the character really is. It could be the tone of their voice, a slight movement of their hands or a lurking smile.

Before I pause and celebrate, I must remind myself there is another word on the list and it goes by the name subtext.

I researched Subtext the same way I research nuance and I discovered a great example. Way back in 1984 there was a movie called The Terminator. In that movie there was the classic line: I’ll be back. If you saw the movie, you knew something bad was about to happen, but if you didn’t and someone told you what he said, you might think it was nothing more than a little info dump. 

With Subtext, nothing is stated or shown. Subtext builds tension. The reader knows something bad is about to happen before the other characters do. When the bad guy said, I’ll be back, the audience knew shit was about to hit the fan long before the characters in the movie did. 

Subtext is all about what the characters are not saying. It’s information hiding behind the words. It’s getting into the characters’ heads and seeing who they really are. 

If you’re a first person writer, subtext is what you do.

So…I think I got it. At least I hope I do. But as you can see, we’re not done yet.

Engaging Your Readers on a Deeper Level

When I write or read, I am drawn to a person whose life has hit rock bottom. In many ways I can relate. At times I think of an old friend or myself where we both had our moment. 

These subtle differences are what makes your reader really engage.

My goal is to make the reader feel who these people are. Once the reader is engaged by relating or by empathy I know I have a chance to succeed. But how do I use subtext to create these kinds of characters?

Using Subtext to Develop Complex Characters

I had no idea how powerful subtext was until I looked at the books I wrote and the books I read. The most powerful outcome by way of subtext is character development. Think of it as the centre of all things where hidden thoughts, emotions, fears and bad habits swim around in a giant literary fish tank.

The outcome is people like you and me and that’s the power of developing complex characters using subtext.  

Crafting Realistic Conversations with Layers of Meaning

I love a good conversation. I am drawn to it. They are fun and fascinating and exciting. I’m sure this explains why I love creating dialog.

I explained earlier how I enjoy creating broken characters, and with broken characters comes broken dialog. A dialog for such a character contains lots of apologies, their conversations are dominated by others. They are verbally pushed around. But as the story grows their vocabulary finds strength. They find words they never had the courage to use and from this a realistic conversation with layers of meaning is created.

Building Atmosphere and Mood with Unspoken Details

Of all the things I’ve mentioned, atmosphere and mood may be the most important piece of all. Without them you will find yourself with a hollow story. Atmosphere and mood are the building blocks, and below is an example why:

The teapot was on the wrong burner, she noticed. How could that be? She is the only one in the house and everything stays the same.

Who moved the teapot? Is there somebody there? Or did she forget? 

Unspoken details are powerful and our favourite books are full of them. 

Evoking Emotion in Readers with Subtext

I’m learning all kinds of stuff I never knew I used. For example: Subtext is full of hidden meanings such as anger, love, mistrust, happiness and loneliness. Does all of this sound familiar? That’s because subtext is the foundation of who we are. It is our true hidden self, hidden under rocks waiting to be discovered or wishing to be hidden away forever.

Enhancing Depth While Editing

This is an easy one for me. Editing is my favourite time. It’s the time when the final draft is complete. I know these people. We’re old friends. I know their moods, theirs cries and their secret smiles.

When it’s time to edit I can add layers that turn into depth. I can enhance their emotions or create a mystery. Editing is colour, a breath of fresh air or a journey deep into a character’s mind where we untangle the most frustrating knot. 

A slight touch of the hands. A longer glance. A parted smile. A tilt of the head.

No explanation is needed, is there? They are tricks a writer will use without a lot of detail. Dialog that doesn’t match is another favourite. Loud arguments, tears, a hateful glare while underneath a crack occurred where their real love is waiting. 

It can be wonderful or painful. It can be a character brushing off a rejection with a laugh while the audience knows he is dying inside. This is powerful stuff and if used correctly it can become a powerful writing tool.  


So there you have it. Just when I thought I knew it all, I learned something new today. It’s kind of like a statue covered in marble. All I had to do was chip away until I found it. 

I hope you enjoyed learning new things with me. I am now much more aware of the things I do, and hopefully I’ll be a little better because of it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top