Author Toolbox #2: The Emotional Connection and Subtext

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.

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I’ve been thinking about how to connect with my readers. Some say you need a hero that the reader admires. I’m not sure that’s the only way to connect. After all, antiheroes are not all that loveable at first.

But we all share the common ground of emotion. It doesn’t matter what the history. We’ve been hurt, angry, happy, lonely, etc. And to me, it’s the link between all of us.

Motivation-Reaction Unit

I don’t know how many of you know about the MRU. There’s a quick explanation below and if you need more, and there’s the internet.

Motivation: something happens to the main character. Reaction: the character —feels, thinks, acts—then speaks (if they do speak). Any of these reactions might be omitted at the discretion of the author.

And the unit is repeated over and over again.

Subtext is expressed in the silent reactions

The silent reactions, the unspoken word, shows the true internal workings of a character. What’s revealed indirectly is subtext. I’m working hard to understand and incorporate subtext into my copy.

An Example:

I remember the first time I got a ticket; I’d run a stop sign with the police officer watching the whole thing. While he wrote out the ticket, I maintained a polite and calm facade, but inside I had a twenty-year-old meltdown.

If I’d been a character, the reader would have seen how hard I tried to laugh off my mistake. All the while frightened by his authority over me. They’d have seen my raw embarrassment after the cop drove away and how I hid this horrible event from everyone in my family. Very ashamed, I didn’t want to admit to them what I had done.

It was just a stop sign, but it didn’t matter. I hated making mistakes back then.

Our Characters

The unspoken word introduces the reader to the unprotected core of your character. It’s private. It makes the character vulnerable. The MC may hide their true feelings from the other characters—maybe, even from themselves—but not the reader. This intimate and trusting moment reveals who they are.

The inner workings and facade they show the surrounding people is revealing as well. Their choice on how to express themselves may be direct, indirect, or a bold face lie. For example, their inner thoughts contradict what they do—hurt expressed as anger.

The character may not work out why they reacted they way they did, but the reader will. They have the information of all the point-of-view characters and know exactly what’s unfolding within the story.

The Reader

Subtext allows the reader in where they can’t go in day-to-day life. It tells them secrets they’ll savor while also enjoying the story. They’ll anticipate what may happen next and be surprised when a twist occurs instead. It allows the story to become their story. Isn’t that what we all want when reading?

I’m doing my best to incorporate more subtext within my work. Do you do this? Do you have any tips for me?

Gleaned from:

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68 responses to “Author Toolbox #2: The Emotional Connection and Subtext

  1. As always, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I never even considered subtext before. Something for me to consider as I work on my revisions. I really like this point you made –> “The character may not work out why they reacted they way they did, but the reader will.”

  2. Oh yeah, one of the best ways to bring a reader into a story is to show the main character’s internal landscape. 🙂

  3. I keep a couple of post-its on the screen telling me exactly how my MC acts in certain situations and I keep to those notes, showing through her breathing/heart rate/ other physical thing she cannot control how she really feels. She might not always acknowledge her feelings, but the reader knows what’s going on. I like revealing my MC in small ways. Not sure yet if it’s working, but my beta readers will let me know 😉
    Great post 🙂

  4. spunkonastick

    it’s all about the reactions whether they speak or not.

    That puts me in mind of the four windows and what everyone sees in us.

  5. I have to come back. When, I don’t know; life is chaotic right now. Which has me wondering… wouldn’t it be great if we had one day a month to share all our favourite links?

  6. Always enjoy reading your hints. I want to feel like I’m walking in the characters shoes.
    sherry @ fundinmental

  7. Smart post. Bookmark to come back and check out the links.

  8. Youalways offer such insightful advice Anna. 😉

  9. During my editing, I find so many people forget about reactions. I read a lot of characters that just “exist” inside a story without interacting with (read: reacting to) it at all. Especially in dialogue!

  10. Very thorough examination. Sub text is a new term to me, but I guess I’ve been doing it in most of my stories. Thanks for sharing.!
    JQ Rose

  11. I think one of the best ways to show how a character feels is through body language. You kind of touched on this a bit in your second point. For instance, having a character take a step back from something that bothers them. Or like your point of laughing too loud to hide embarrassment. That is my favorite way of expressing character emotions.
    Thanks for the great post!
    God Bless,
    Lindsi

  12. Subtext is one of my favourite things to read, but I’ve never been sure how to express it in my writing. When I read I can see why characters act the way they do, even when it’s the opposite of how they’re feeling, I guess I just need to trust my readers to get it! Thanks for the tips 🙂

  13. Subtext is great. It gives me tingles, as a writer and as a reader. 🙂

  14. I have heard of the Motivation-Reaction thing, but it was called Action-Reaction when I attended a workshop on it 20 years ago. It sometimes amazes me how things have changed since I first started writing!

  15. I do it, but not because I’m consciously trying. I envision my characters as real people and give them the freedom to react and do as they will. It really helps. Not sure if it will work for everyone, but there you have it.

  16. Great food for thought, Anna! I struggle with this balancing act. Have I explained enough. Am I giving the reader enough credit to pick up on what I’m putting down, or am I not saying enough?

  17. I really love your subtext tip. I love it when it works out well. It happens to all of us too, and it makes the character feel more real to me. 🙂

  18. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I’m an advocate of mixing in subtle actions by my characters that reveal their emotions as much as including their inner thoughts directly into the text. It just makes the characters more real, relatable, and richer.
    With regards to MRU, I hadn’t heard of that but from what it sounds like, I think I have used it. Actually, it took me back to works by Danielle Steele (I know no one ever talks about her anymore) who tends to put her characters in a loop. Their actions and reactions always have a pattern, which I had not appreciated as much as a novice reader as I do these days as a writer.

  19. Characters and my connection to them are what keeps me reading. If the plot is so-so and the characters intriguing, I’ll usually continue, but if the plot is fantastic and the characters flat and emotionless, then most times I move on.

  20. Great insights! The emotional connection is so important. My characters are real to me and reactions make the interactions and stakes so much more interesting.

  21. It’s all about character when it comes to story. When reading, it’s about the reactions for me. If the character reacts to a situation in a way I find off putting or unbelievable, I’ll probably put the book aside.

  22. Subtext is a part of writing stories which I think comes with maturity. I’m sure I used to spell things out a little heavy-handedly years ago (and still do in first drafts occasionally). Now I feel my way through exploring action/reaction. But what interests me is when a character reacts outside social norms. I would like to write a character like that one day, when I can do it in a way where readers will not be put off by them; a character like the girl in a Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series.

  23. I love providing emotional connections. My characters are so often put through the ringer. I always remember ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ whenever I’m building a scene. Mica has a great series on her blog, it’s super helpful: http://micascottikole.com/tag/show-vs-tell/

  24. Great tips. Thanks for sharing.

  25. This is one of the best ways I’ve seen it explained. This is awesome. Thank you!

  26. I love your example of getting a ticket. I got one, and I was totally flustered on the inside, but on the outside I was all smiley and polite. This is a perfect example to use, and one that many of us can relate to. Thanks for sharing!

  27. “The MC may hide their true feelings from the other characters—maybe, even from themselves—but not the reader. This intimate and trusting moment reveals who they are.”
    This is what we should all strive to as writers, creating that bridge of trust with our readers and connecting them with our characters. Well said.

  28. Hi, Anna,

    Very interesting post. I never thought about the subtext by name, but I do try to show emotion through actions and the character’s quirks. Thanks for sharing your points…

  29. As a reader, subtext is the thing that lifts a novel above the ordinary. I’ve just finished a novel where the subtext practically had me yelling at the characters. So good!

    But it’s hard to write. I’ve found Margie Lawson’s lecture packets the most useful resource so far. They are full of great examples, but it’s still hard to write.

    Thanks for the tips!

  30. Omg, I hoped someone would write about subtext! It’s so important. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  31. This has me thinking about what makes me fall in love with the characters in some books, but not others.Subtext done properly may be the key there!

  32. I may need to re-read some of my work with this in mind…

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