Category Archives: Savvy Writer

Subtext–Kick Your Writing Quality Up a Notch!

At the March 31st W.I.S.E. Coffee meeting of Words for the Journey, subtext came up at the end of the meeting. Sadly, we were talking about the reputation Christian writers have for putting out “bad fiction.” I gave it an acronym—”BFC,” bad christian fiction, and then there’s “BF,” bad fiction, Christian or not.

In response to the sad looks on everyone’s faces, I said, “You know what the best way to create good fiction is? I mean, really kick it up a notch? You need to learn and practice subtext.

You see,  if you analyze BF, most of the time you’ll find that everything is too spot on, especially dialogue.

In spot-on dialogue, people say what they mean and mean what they say. In spot-on dialogue, characters say they’re angry, and they are! So…they’re is no subtlety in this type of dialogue, no little Easter eggs for the reader to mine. And, obvious can mean boring.

  • One way to add subtext is for people to seem to be talking about one thing, but they’re really talking about something else. You’ll find an example of this in the online article “Ask the Writer: In Dialogue What is Subtext?” (I share the link at the bottom.)
  • Another way is to use symbolism. In the same article, there is a dialogue from The Great Gatsby where Gatsby‘s author uses the shirts—beautiful, richly-made shirts—as a symbol for wealth. Daisy, who truly loves wealth, says over and over how much she loves the shirts.
  • Body language also adds subtext. In real life, people say one thing and their body language can support that, show just the opposite, or show they’re hiding something. That’s subtext.

Dialogue is not the only place to put subtext, it’s just the most obvious. Charles Baxter discusses all the places to use subtext in fiction in his book, The Art of Subtext.

Before I give links, I’ll say one more thing about BCF. I don’t think Christian fiction is all bad. I think its reputation from the ’80s has stuck with it. Ever read Francine Rivers? Susan May Warren? It is getting better and will continue to do so.

And, I’ve heard the same complaints about romance genre!

If we really want, we can see bad writing everywhere. The fix is to stop whining and get to work. You be the one whose work isn’t bad. If every writer did that, there wouldn’t be any truly bad writing in any genre. 

‘Nuff said. Here are the links:

In dialogue, what is subtext?
Nine Steps to Writing Dialogue with Rich Subtext

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter (print and e-book)
Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger (print and e-book)
Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops characters, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme, by Elizabeth Lyon (print and e-book)


Legal Books for Writers

At our March 10th Words for the Journey meeting, we talked about publishing contracts and what is typically negotiable. We discussed the Writer’s Digest post Book Contract: What’s Negotiable and What’s Not.

In that article, the author Brian A. Klems suggests a book The Writer’s Legal Guide, by Tad Crawford and Kay Murray. The book has a section on negotiating book contracts, plus other legal issues that are a concern for the writer: 

  • Registering copyrights, including online
  • Taxes and bookkeeping
  • Following fair use guidelines
  • Negotiating contracts with publishers and agents
  • Obtaining permissions to use others’ work
  • Dealing with periodical, syndication, film, television, play, and audio rights agreements
  • Handling business disputes
  • Understanding libel, privacy, and the limits of free expression
  • Avoiding self-publishing missteps
  • Planning authors’ estates 

I want that book, but I am more interested in self-publishing, so I found this little gem: Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook by Helen Sedwick.

The two books have some overlap, but, as a blogger, I am interested in internet regulations, so I’ll buy the Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook for that (it’s only 4.99 on Kindle). 

There are other books on publishing legalities and book contract negotiation. There’s Negotiating a Book Contract by Mark Levine, and The Writer’s Legal Companion by Brad Bunnin.

I also shared with the group the link to a website that lists intellectual property lawyers. Some authors use IP lawyers to negotiate book contracts. Once the deal is done, the author does not have to continue to pay the lawyer whenever the author’s work sells, as one would an agent. Here is the link for IP lawyers by state, which then leads you to your city.

We also discussed another post about four main ways to open your fiction story. You can see my write-up of that discussion here.

Does Your Plot Have a Theme?

Savvy Writer Article #1103  By DENISE MILLER HOLMES

Of all the elements of fiction, theme is the one least understood. It feels intangible, and gets easily lost when a writer plots.

But, theme is the very foundation of plot, so if you begin to push your characters around in order to make an exciting plot without regard for theme, you are in danger of losing the cohesiveness of your story.

Simply put, theme is the moral of the story. Your plot must tell a tale that demonstrates that moral or the reader will be confused.

For instance, the theme of the movie The Patriot starring Mel Gibson is you don’t have to be ruthless to fight a war and win. If you check out the plot, it demonstrates this theme from beginning to end.

The film’s opening scene has Benjamin Martin’s voice saying “I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me, and the cost is more than I can bear.” This fear, we find out in the opening sequence, came about because Benjamin fought a previous war ruthlessly. He feels so guilty about it,  he is now a pacifist.

But the current war pulls him in. If he is to save his family, he must fight. He begins by fighting with abandon, until his sons confront him and teach him he can fight with honor.

He struggles with this new moral truth. Toward the end, he is tempted to withdraw from the fight. He is filled with anger at the death of his son. He  believes that God is punishing him for past ruthlessness and that he must go back to pacifism. But he has a great epiphany…it is good to fight. His son fought. His son fought fairly. He son would want him to fight.

So he takes up arms and joins in the strategic battle against the British, and fights with honor. And thus, he wins the battle. He is a changed man—a man who gave up his flaw to realize a new way.

Does your plot support your theme? Remember, the character flaw, the false belief, the back story, the current inner struggle of your main character, and your plot, must reflect a moral premise. If not, your story isn’t a story, it’s just a plot.

Logline: What it Is and How to Write One

Savvy Writer Article #1102 By DENISE MILLER HOLMES

A logline is a one-sentence description of your story idea. You use it to both help you focus on the story you are writing as well as to pitch the idea to publishers, agents, and the like. Steven Spielberg likes it less than 25 words, and that’s what is usually done.

The first question the logline answers is, Who are the protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain)?

In the case of Star Wars, the hero is Luke (a farm boy in a distant galaxy) and the villain is the evil empire. Darth Vader (a powerful sorcerer) is also the villain, and he represents the evil empire.

Then we have to ask, What is the goal of the hero? For Luke, the goal is to prevent Darth Vader and the evil empire from gaining more power and to reestablish the republic.

What is the goal of the villain?—to complete the takeover of the empire with the evil Syth in control.

Okay, so we see the conflict of the story. Now we have to implement some rules.

  • Don’t use character names in your logline, tell the character’s role or title instead. (a farm boy, a princess, a housewife, a businessman)
  • Describe your hero and villain (add adjectives)
  • Communicate the setting, the time frame (if applicable), and the genre.
  • Choose conflict that’s emotionally charged (Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, recommends irony.)
  • Use present tense
  • Tell the setup only. Leave the conclusion a mystery

A strong-willed farm boy must become a warrior in order to join a rebellion against an evil galactic empire and its powerful sorcerer. ~Star Wars

Let’s break it down:

Farm-boy—tells his role but not his name

Strong-willed—gives just enough character description to understand that the empire is in for a fight and that our hero is flawed.

Warrior—another role the hero plays in the story, and this tells us there’s action.

Empire—that’s the bigger, social villain.

Evil—for this story, labeling the empire “evil” is enough. For another story, you would use a more specific adjective to describe the villain. You might contrast the adjective for the hero with the adjective for the villain, for instance, to show why there is conflict.

Galactic—lets us know it’s not an earth empire, like Ancient Rome, but a huge empire that involves many planets and people.  This also helps us know the genre, Science Fiction.

Sorcerer—this is the personal villain, and it also shows us that besides being SciFi, there’s a touch of fantasy, or magical realism, however you see it. There is also great contrast between the hero (a farm boy, who is a neophyte in “the force”) and a powerful sorcerer.

The conflict is emotionally charged because we have a farm-boy coming up against an evil empire. The stakes are high and the odds are against him.  This logline promises us an intense action-adventure science fiction story!

Here are more loglines:

Legally Blonde—A ditzy-blonde, California sorority president, dumped by her Harvard-Law-School boyfriend, leaves California and fights to succeed at Harvard Law to prove she is worthy of him. 

Pretty Woman—A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.  (quoted in Save the Cat by Blake Snyder)  I might add an adjective for both “businessman” and “hooker,” but this is fine without it because there is such an obvious conflict/contrast between a businessman and a hooker.

Terminator—An ordinary waitress fights the attacks of an obsessed time-traveling robot who is trying to kill her because her future son will lead the resistance against the violent robotic rulers. (Yes, it’s a little long)

Remember that only you and the person to whom you are pitching will see your one-sentence summary. If it gives away some of the story, it’s okay. The reader/viewer never will see it.

Blake Snyder recommends being a “slave” to your logline because it keeps you on track while writing. If you want to make a major change, go back and work it out as a one-sentence summary.

What a short description like this does is strip down the story to its bare minimum. It allows you to see the plot conflict and if there is enough contrast between the hero and the villain. Before you write or change your plot, work it out as a logline to see if your story works.


You may also like: Deepening Story Conflict with a Clash of Values.

Deepening Story Conflict With a Clash of Values: A Lesson from The Wizard of Oz

Savvy Writer Article #1101  By DENISE MILLER HOLMES

Most writers know that a good story has a clash between the main character and someone or something that comes against the hero. Conflict is usually thought of as two pitted against each other to achieve either the same or conflicting goals.

But, Stanley D. Williams, in his book The Moral Premise, says that the real story isn’t the external conflict. Instead, the real story is a clash of values.

We see an example of what Williams is talking about in the movie The Wizard of Oz.  In the movie, the external battle between the wicked witch and Dorothy is about who owns the ruby slippers.

Legally, the ruby slippers belong to the witch. They were her sister’s after all. But Dorothy owns them now and the witch is after Dorothy to get them.

The audience neither sympathizes with the witch (even though something rightfully hers was taken), nor do they root for her to regain possession of the slippers. Why? Because the witch is evil, the slippers are power, and no good person wants evil to gain more power.

That’s the external conflict. The internal conflict is about the lesson, the moral premise, the characters are supposed to learn—there’s no place like home. The slippers are Dorothy’s way home, and the witch is trying everything to prevent Dorothy from getting home. What’s great about home? The people are what’s great, specifically, the people you love.

From the beginning of the film, the script writers show Dorothy’s values.  We see that Dorothy truly loves her family when she meets the traveling wizard. The way he tricks her into going home is to tell her that Aunt Em is sick. She immediately forgets her fear of Toto being taken, and rushes home!

Contrast this with the scene where the witch finds her sister dead—crushed beneath Dorothy’s house. There are no tears. All the witch wants are the ruby slippers.

This scene shows us that the only thing the witch cares about is power.  People don’t matter to her. That’s what makes her scary.

So in The Wizard of Oz, a set of opposite values is presented—the belief that happiness is found through loving and attaching to people versus the opposite belief that happiness is found through shunning any attachment or love. These worldviews are shown often throughout the film in various ways and are the real conflict of the story. The external conflicts are only a result of those values.

Following The Moral Premise’s main point, there is a depth that is added to your story when, savvy Christian writer, you make sure the gold or the love interest or exposing/hiding the truth isn’t the only clash between your good guy and bad guy. Make the underlying conflict a clash of worldview—a clash of values.

You may also like Logline: What it is and How to Write One