Casablanca: Shadows and Subtext

CASABLANCA, Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart, 1942

CASABLANCA, Joy Page, Humphrey Bogart, 1942

I watched Casablanca again the other night and realized two things. First, it clips along at a pretty fast pace even by today’s standards. Second, there is a huge amount of subtext. The pace could have crippled the story were it not for the masterful use of subtext imparting both information and intrigue.

For instance, Rick Blaine says repeatedly he “sticks his neck out for no one.” Yet he’s challenged by two different characters, Capt. Renault and the evil Major Strasser, both of whom state Rick had fought for the underdog twice and recently. His reaction? He makes a joke out of it.  What do we conclude? Something happened. Something happened so big that it changed him. Or maybe he’s lying.

In another scene, a young Bulgarian bride comes to Rick and asks him if Capt. Renault keeps his promises. (Earlier it’s implied Capt. Renault trades visas for sex.) Rick responds by rigging the roulette game so her groom can win the money needed for the visas. Recall Rick sticks his neck out for no one. But he casually gave away twenty thousand francs. What does that mean? Money doesn’t matter to him or he does stick his neck out?

That scene foreshadows Ilsa’s after-hours visit to persuade Rick to give her the letters of transit.  They argue. She pulls a gun. He grabs her. She cries. They kiss.  Cut to exterior shot of Rick looking out a window, drink in hand.

Did they have sex? It sure feels like they did. But he’s still wearing his tux and bow tie! It’s the early hours of the morning, he isn’t going anywhere, why would he put his tux back on? And did Ilsa have sex with Rick just to obtain the transit letters or does she really love him?

Because so much of Casablanca’s story is mysterious (each set of facts lead to two different inferences), you really don’t know what’s going to happen at the end. Using our reader’s predilection to think is what mystery is all about. We create a puzzle, they solve it. We don’t have to lay a trail of breadcrumbs for our readers. We can bury our clues in subtext. Along the way, we can allow our readers to draw a conclusion then we can challenge it.

By hiding clues in subtext, the readers will be more emotionally engaged in the puzzle-solving and thus they will be more satisfied when the solution is revealed.  And those are the readers who will be thinking and talking about the story long after they’ve read it.

Bringing Characters out of the Shadows

Do characters follow you around, shadowing you with their persistent presence until you finally write their stories? They lurk half-baked, in the back of your mind, waiting impatiently until you find a way to bring them out of the shadows.

Last week I immersed myself in a craft writing workshop.  Every day, there were story exercises, and luckily, I could draw from this retinue of half-baked shadows in my mind to populate my assignments.  Who are some of these shadows?

  • Interesting, real people—Sometimes I meet someone who fascinates me (the “why” is not always clear), and I think one day I must use him or her in a story.  When the time comes to fictionalize that person, I ask myself:  “What has motivated this person to bring him or her to this particular place in life?”
  • Fictional characters—Sometimes there’s a character who behaves in an interesting way.  This is usually a secondary character who has popped unbidden into another story.  I have to ask this character:  “What are you doing in my story?  Why are you acting this way?”
  • Myself—Sometimes I wonder who I would be if I found myself in a different time and place, under different circumstances, if I’d chosen a different turning point in my past.  I’d be a different person.  And I have to ask myself:  “How would I react in this new situation?  What would motivate me?”

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions!  There are only unique answers, and that’s a good thing.

The author’s unique spin on what motivates these shadows will produce a unique character to populate story.  The author brings his or her own experience to the subject matter, and that produces something unique.  One really valuable piece of writing advice I learned in another workshop some years ago has become my mantra:  “Write the story that only you can write.”

Digging deep into motivation and adding all these pieces together bring my characters out from the shadows.  What are your methods?

From Out Of The Shadows

This semester, I’m teaching a course on American Gothic Literature, so I have gothic and all of its shivery goodness on my mind. I’m always fascinated by where gothic and mystery overlap, and one of their points of connection involves how, typically, something must come forward from the shadows.

In gothic, there are usually actual shadows, such as those cast by the moonlight peeking through the ominously twisted tree branches in a dark forest, or those thrown by the flickering light of a torch—or it may be the shadows of the mind, where, in gothic, madness so often lurks and brings back repressed things with a vengeance.

In mystery, shadows are similarly cast, but depending on what genre we’re talking about, they may work differently. For example, a thriller might give us shadows right off the bat in the form of shadowy figures, dangerous landscapes, etc., while cozies tend to give us more of a gradual revelation: the community and characters often look bright and sunny…until the body “drops.”

Both gothic and mystery in general can be focused on the big reveal, along with any number of smaller revelations along the way. Moreover, the characters have shadow sides, too. Protagonists and antagonists alike have secrets and tendencies that may be revealed when we least expect it.

This presents quite a challenge for the writer. It’s not easy to pull off a believable emergence from the shadows that has been plausibly set up but isn’t broadcast a mile away. Plus, experienced readers are anticipatory…we know not to relax too comfortably into the story because something is coming our way from the shadows. All of this to say: when we are surprised, we should applaud the author.

What are some of your favorite examples of “coming forward from the shadows” (in mystery or otherwise)?

Shadows of Columbine

“We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months. … We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.” — President Obama after the shooting deaths of nine people at a Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

I am a child of Columbine. I was a senior in high school on April 20, 1999, when 13 teenagers were shot and killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

I distinctly remember coming to school the next day. My first class was AP American Government, and we all filed in slow—bleary with shock and dread.

All of us knew what had happened. And we knew our teacher would bring it up—he was always trying us to see our government as a living, breathing thing, not something exclusive to the men in powdered wigs who laid the framework.

Sure enough, just minutes after the bell, we were reluctantly discussing it, when in the corner, one of the most popular boys in our year broke down in tears. When the teacher asked him why he was crying, he sputtered, “I don’t want to get shot at prom.”

I didn’t either. Nobody did. But nobody else was crying, mostly because we were sure, TOTALLY sure, that this was a one-off event. It wouldn’t happen at our school and it wouldn’t happen anywhere again. Nobody else in the entire world would shoot up a school, let alone walk into our senior prom with a gun.

We were safe. We were fine. Nothing was going to happen.

And nothing did happen to us.

But it did happen again. And again. And again.

In the years since, it’s happened so much that they cases are blending together for me. I’ll admit, when I read the transcript of the president’s speech, I had to look up the Tucson mention because I didn’t remember it. And it took me a few moments to realize that Blacksburg was a reference to the Virginia Tech shooting—only memorable lately because the camera man who was shot on air a few weeks ago had survived that shooting only to be taken down by a gunman at his job years later.

When I was sitting there in that American Government class, telling myself and the boy in the corner that it was going to be fine, I really did think that it would be.

Instead, I was wrong. Columbine has been a shadow cast across my adult life. It is actually more than a shadow—it’s possibility. A possibility that keeps getting confirmed every few weeks, when the president makes the same speech yet again, his anger growing each time he has to address a mass shooting at a school, church, movie theater, mall—anywhere.

Anywhere. It can happen anywhere.

I don’t worry so much anymore about myself being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I’m constantly fearing my kids will be. Their schools recently have added secure front entrances—a symptom of Newtown, to be sure—but glass and steel won’t keep out the kind of darkness that drives this shadow.

As long as we continue to stand by without change, nothing will.

Note: This is the opinion of Sarah Henning. I speak for myself and not for my Mysterista sisters. 

Interview: Kristina Stanley

Please welcome Kristina Stanley, author of the Stone Mountain Mystery series.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Years ago, I said to my husband, “All I want from life is to spend time with you, walk the dog, and write.” So I have to say that’s my dream day.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I think Farley, my soft-coated wheaten terrier, is my signature accessory. He’s seven, and I’d bet BLAZE CoverI’ve spent 90% of the last seven years with him at my side. He is inches from my feet as I write this.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Can I name a place? I’ll assume the answer is yes. Panorama Mountain Village and the Purcell Mountains inspired me to write. The place captured my heart and when I left to go sailing, writing was the way I brought it with me. I spent 5 years sailing on a catamaran in the Bahamas, and it’s there I wrote four novels.

Do you listen to music when you write?
I listen to my dog snoring and dreaming, but other than that I like to work in silence.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
You’re going to laugh at me, but I don’t really like chocolate. If I could go with potato chips, I’d say salt & vinegar because of the strength in the flavor, and Kalin Thompson, the protagonist of the Stone Mountain Mysteries, is strong but also exciting to be with.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
For Descent: The ski industry, and I love to downhill ski.

For Blaze: I was the director on duty at the resort I worked at when a fire burnt 16 condos to the ground. I spent the night at the site of the fire organizing guests so they had a place to stay, managing people traffic and getting food and water for the firefighters, and watching my firefighter friends save our village.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Discovering what would make a balanced person commit murder is the theme I most enjoy.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Kalin Thompson is an avid skier. She’s a widow who is estranged from her younger brother. Losing her husband in an accident and her brother to an unresolved fight makes Kalin worry about those she loves. Sometimes she feels guilty about her love for the new man in her life, Ben, because Jack’s life was cut short in a violent manner.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Yikes. I have no idea how answer this question. I’ve never thought of Kalin Thompson in terms of a famous person. I even did an internet search for famous actors in their 30s, read through their bios and couldn’t come up with a group of names would make up Kalin.

If you could host an author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
I’ve chosen the following five authors because they’ve had the most influence on my writing career:

Cheryl Kaye Tardiff – publisher at Imajin Books
Garry Ryan – my mentor via Crime Writers of Canada
Joan Barfoot – my mentor via the Humber School for Writers Post Graduate Correspondence course.
Mary Gaitskill – workshop leader at Humber School for Writers
Mary Higgins Clark – Author of Moonlight Becomes You – She doesn’t know it, but the day I read her book was the day I decided to write mystery novels.

What’s next for you?
I’m fine-tuning Avalanche (A Stone Mountain Mystery #3). I’m 20,000 words into a novel I have yet to name (A Stone Mountain Mystery #4), and I’ve sent Look the Other Way to beta readers. Look the Other Way is a murder mystery that takes place in the Bahamas. I hope to publish all three in 2016. And that’s the first time I’ve made my 2016 goal public.

I love to connect with other readers and writers. I can be found at From there you can reach me many different ways via social media.

If you’re looking for something to read and you haven’t read Descent yet, now is your chance before Blaze comes out. Find it at

And if you have read Descent, I’d be very excited if you pre-ordered Blaze.


Kristina Stanley is the author of the Stone Mountain Mystery Series. Her books have garnered the attention of prestigious crime writing organizations in Canada and England. Crime Writers of Canada nominated Descent for the Unhanged Arthur award. The Crime Writers’ Association nominated Blaze for the Debut Dagger. She is published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Before writing her series, Kristina was the director of security, human resources and guest services at a resort in the depths of the British Columbian mountains. The job and lifestyle captured her heart, and she decided to write mysteries about life in an isolated resort. While writing the first four novels, she spent five years living aboard a sailboat in the US and the Bahamas.

The Many Sides of Shadows

Shadows do a lot of things. And not all of it is bad.

Most people think of what I’ll call the “evil” part of shadows. They hide things. Obscure the truth. Bad guys lurk in shadows. Innocent people get mugged in shadowy alleys. The scary glowing eyes always come out of a shadow. When a horror flick wants to alert you that something bad is afoot – shadow.

And it’s true. Shadows are great places to hide – people, things or facts. Want to lead your reader down the garden path? Stick in some shadows. Not just the physical kind, either. Words can cast shadows, too. Because in a shadow, there’s just enough light to see that something is there – just not exactly what.

It’s that unknown factor that is creepy. Once you shine a light, the shadow is gone. What is hidden is revealed. It might be bad, but at least you know what’s coming. The mystery is revealed. Really – would a brightly lit horror flick be as scary? Probably not.

But shadows aren’t only hiding places. Shadows soften things. My daughter is an artist. When she wants to make a gentler picture, she uses shadows. The main action might be bright color, but the depth comes out in those tones of gray. She does it with makeup. When she wants to make her cheekbones stand out, she shades the hollows of her cheeks. Subtle. Barely noticeable. But it gives a depth to her face, a depth that is most remarkable when you don’t see it.

It’s the same with fiction. Readers complain about cardboard characters. People who are more like caricatures, than living, breathing humans. A lot of times it’s because these characters have no depth; no shadows are there to soften the harsh planes, or bring out the light. I’m not talking about physical light. Earlier this week, Kait talked about backstory. Backstory gives depth, reality.

Backstory gives shadow.

For every light, there is a dark. Life is full of contrasts. As humans, as artists, as writers: we shouldn’t fear the shadows.

The shadows are what keep it interesting.

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73

The Shadow Knows

“What evil lurks in the hearts of men…the shadow knows.” There’s a reason The Shadow was such a popular character, first in pulps in the thirties and then television,  comic books, movies, and radio (with personal fave Orson Welles! But that’s a separate thought.) The Shadow was—let’s just say it—a shady character. A vigilante.

By definition, a vigilante is a citizen or member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. I’ll admit, when I think vigilante, I think Batman. But doesn’t this definition describe many amateur sleuth protagonists?  Isn’t this the motivation at their core, the reason they risk life and limb to solve mysteries in their own backyards?

Crime fiction continues to be one of the most popular genres of fiction, and many readers connect with the character who is acting in an unofficial capacity: amateur sleuth or former cop who has left the force either voluntarily or not by choice. We appreciate that they’re fighting to find the truth, and we support them in the often illegal choices they make in order to get answers. We’re like the shadow over their shoulders, knowing that the bad guy must be caught, and rooting not for the police but for the person who makes the effort to right the wrongs that have been done.

At a recent cozy mystery panel, I polled the audience. “Show of hands: how many of you have investigated a local murder?” You can guess how many people raised their hands (none). But—like fans of The Shadow—we crave stories where the bad guys don’t win. As long as evil lurks in the hearts of men, we’ll continue to follow amateur sleuths into danger.

Diane Vallere | @dianevallere