SFR Brigade Presents — Don’t say what you mean

SFR Brigade showcase

Welcome to the Science Fiction Romance Brigade’s showcase. Once a month, the brigade’s authors highlight snippets from new works, WIPs, cover reveals or other fun things.

Today I’m going to talk about something that’s a great way to add depth to conversation. Namely, avoid having characters say exactly what they mean.

Don’t get me wrong: in real life, people often say what they mean. “Pass the salt” probably means the roast was underspiced . . .

. . . but it could also be a way of interrupting an argument.

“We’re going to crash!” probably means an asteroid looms in front of the spaceship . . .

. . . but it could also mark the moment when a character’s fears overwhelm them.

“You don’t scare me, punk,” could be yet another example of the hackneyed, trite, tiresome, tedious, cliched, overused and overdone schoolyard bluster Hollywood has convinced us heroes are supposed to display at all times, instead of acting like believable people . . .

. . . but it could also be a desperate attempt to stall for time until the redoubtable heroine can sneak up on the bad guy. Or maybe it’s a panicky attempt to convince himself he isn’t afraid of the punk.

Ahem. You now my opinion of so-called heroes who verbally strut like peacocks to show that they’re fearless. I was about to add “or heroines” to this sentence, but authors tend to be more imaginative about their women. It’s no accident that it’s a boy, not a girl, who gets his tongue stuck to the metal pole in A Christmas Story.

But I digress.  The point is, dialogue is richer if it hints at subtext; that’s the stuff in italics above. Indirect dialogue often characterizes the early stages of romance, as in this snippet from my work in progress. The hero, Norse, is a plain speaker but in the face of the heroine’s uncertainty about her feelings, even he falters at one point.  Notice how the heroine, Cynthia, dances around saying what she actually means:

“With him injured in the back,”  Norse said, “this maybe be an odd moment for me to admit for the first time that I love you.”

“True.  You’d probably make me crash.”

“We’ll probably crash anyway.  Slow down.”

Cynthia did, but only a little.  The forest thinned on either side of the road, giving way to low, nondescript shrubs.  “Love?” she said.

“Well, uh, yeah.”

Her mouth pinched into lemon-overdose expression.  “Sounds to me like that word tastes awfully bad to you.”

“I don’t say it often.  But when I do . . . Cynthia, I mean it.”

She said nothing for several minutes.  Her driving slowed.  Either she was far enough from the explosion to relax, or it was growing too dark to speed, or she felt her cargo — the injured alien in the back seat — was too precious to risk.

“Okay,” she said.

“That’s it?” he said with a chuckle as he quoted her words back to her.  “’That’s you’re only response?’”

“I’ve never said that word, so don’t expect too much of me, okay?”

“I find that hard to believe.  Never?”

“Well, I’ve said it to my dog.  Does that count?”

If the characters simply said what they meant, it could’ve been “I love you,” followed by “I don’t know how I feel yet.”  And sometimes that’s perfect. Other times, though, you may want to show more than just the bald words. What else can we learn from the subtext.

  • The hero is brash; the heroine, guarded
  • The hero is quick to make up her mind; the heroine, afraid to commit herself even though we suspect she does love him.
  • The hero is awkward in that he chose a lousy time — the middle of a car chase — to proclaim his feelings.

See also the following ad, which plays around with the idea of what would happen if people on a first date said what they really meant.



  1. Never say what you mean. Is that your motto?

    1. LOL. If you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so good, does it?

  2. LOL – I do love subtext! Great excerpt Ed – but if you don’t mind me putting on my nitty picky crit partner’s hat – I think you meant ‘your only response’ not ‘you’re’ – easily done, I do it all the time when my brain goes into phonetic mode! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the helpful catch, Hywela. I should’ve prefaced the selection by pointing out that the text is raw & unedited so critique catches like this are great!

  3. ratmom · · Reply

    Ya know, I never thought of it that way but it’s so true. That commercial really is funny. I don’t know if anyone would ever have a second date if we were that truthful. #getsocial17

    1. I suspect most guys, even the nice ones, would get their faces slapped for what they were thinking. 😉

  4. Interesting discussion, always good to stop for a moment and ponder the subtexts behind the use of words.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Veronica!

  5. Omg, I love this excerpt, Ed! The subtexts are great, too. 🙂 Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Lea. Since this is a WIP, I’d say there’s a good chance I’ll change the text somewhat before publication.

  6. I love subtext in books! I grew up in a northeastern family who specialize in it. My husband’s family tells it like it is and it took me a good 3-5 years to adjust.

    My mother-in-law would say, “Why don’t you have curtains up?” and it would mean, “Why don’t you have curtains up?”

    My mom would say, “Why don’t you have curtains up?” and it would mean, “You’re a failure as a homemaker. How will your family possibly survive without curtains? What will the neighbors think? Everyone will judge you. Have you seen your sister’s curtains? SHE has impeccable taste.”

    It’s great in books. In real life, I could do without it 😉

    Also, I especially love the line about the lemon-overdose expression. That’s good wording.

    1. This is a great example, Janie. Have you ever worked anything like this into one of your books? It would be a marvelous bit of characterization.

      1. I have a character modeled after my mom, but not a contrasting tell-it-like-it-is character. I’ll have to see where I can put that.

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