Shoot for the Stars Tip #5: Add Some Texture

In this six-part series, we’re shooting for the stars by adding some great stuff into our writing.

Shoot for the Stars Tip #1: Use Passive Voice … Occasionally

Shoot for the Stars Tip #2: Make Dialogue Count

Shoot for the Stars Tip #3: Be a Straight Shooter

Shoot for the Stars Tip #4: Write for Readers

And now …

Shoot for the Stars Tip #5: Add Some Texture

My two-year-old granddaughter Louise showed me her collection of three seashells recently. She held a coquina clam shell in the outstretched palm of her hand and invited me to touch it. “This one is smooth,” she said. She held out a conch shell. “This one is bumpy.” She held out a ribbed ark clam. “This one is rough,” she said. Louise is learning that there are different kinds of seashells and that the differences in their texture make them more interesting.

What are the textures of your story? What does it mean to add texture to a story?

Texture can take your fiction, memoir, and creative nonfiction to another level. Like the different textures of seashells, texture in prose writing can be varied—smooth, rough, prickly, soft, hard, sharp, fuzzy.

Think of texture as a craft tool that can give your story more interest and more depth. If it helps, think of it as something you can visualize. Many times, it is something you can visualize.

Texture in writing can come in many forms:


Think of subtext in your story as what is implied or left unsaid. It’s something the reader can infer by reading between the lines or into the open space of what is there on the page. It may involve something a character is feeling but is afraid to express. It can be a deeper or more complex meaning underlying seemingly simple words. This invisible texture adds richness by allowing the reader to be drawn further into the story and become a participant in the story. It invites readers in.

A great example of subtext is Don Vito Corleone’s famous line in The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The line is delivered after Don Corleone’s godson, Johnny Fontaine, comes to him distraught—Johnny wanted a part in a movie, but the producer turned him down. Don Corleone promises Johnny he’s going to get the part, but Johnny tells him it’s too late, the movie starts shooting in a week. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” Don Corleone tells Johnny. The plain language is one seemingly innocent thing on its face, but the subtext is threatening. The threat is also delivered in subtext—when the producer wakes up and finds the severed head of his prize racehorse at the foot of his bed, the subtext is that he will be next if he doesn’t give Johnny the part.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters can add so many things to help take a story from good to great. Texture is only one of them on a long list. But for secondary characters to add texture to a story, it’s important to develop them well. Secondary characters can add texture to a story in a variety of ways. Each secondary character is an individual, so their unique personality, voice, and behaviors add texture. They may not be the star of your story, but they are the star of their own stories, so they should be fully fleshed out with their own wants, needs, and problems.

Fredo is a secondary character in The Godfather. Although he’s one of Don Corleone’s sons, he is different and doesn’t always tow the Family line, which doesn’t bode well for him. Michael Corleone starts out as different, too, but when push comes to shove, he’s loyal to the Family above all else. Fredo is not as smart as his brothers are, doesn’t understand things he needs to understand in order to be successful and to survive, and doesn’t behave as his brothers do. He speaks out of turn. He sides with people outside the Family. He talks to people outside the Family about Family business and secrets. His presence in the story adds interest, tension, and texture.

Which leads me to …


A subplot is just what it sounds like it is. It’s another story beneath or alongside the main story that supports and adds to the story. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the subplot of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets adds texture to the story, as well as tension, conflict, and drama.

In the Godfather, all the Corleone siblings have subplots. Michael’s trajectory gradually rises to the level of a main plot when he avenges his father’s shooting and takes the family reins. But the other siblings’ stories do not make that leap. Sonny is a hothead whose inability to behave reasonably, like his father does, is his fatal flaw. Connie’s husband Carlo cheats on her and physically abuses her. She is both opressed by the patriarchy and kept safe by it—her brothers emerge as her protectors, but Carlo’s fatal mistake is betraying the Family. Connie only comes into her own power after Carlo’s murder.

Continuing with Fredo, he is a sibling who wants the same level of respect his brothers get, but he isn’t physically or mentally equipped to earn that respect. His resentment leads to a lack of loyalty, which he doesn’t even seem to understand. Michael eventually tells him, “Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.” Unfortunately, Fredo doesn’t heed Michael’s advice, and his subplot’s trajectory continues toward a tragic conclusion.


A theme is a general or abstract idea underlying a story. I don’t like to use the word “message,” because I don’t think stories should be didactic. I think it’s a more subtle thing than that, something the reader will come to on their own if room is left in the story for them to do so. For example, in my short story “The Art of Oblivion,” the underlying theme is that both idealizing the past and avoiding the past can be harmful, based on the ideas that the good old days weren’t always so good and that we have to address and deal with the past in order to move forward. But I don’t ever come out and say those things. Instead, I show a protagonist idealizing one part of her past and running away from another, and I show how those things are damaging to her and to her daughter.

In The Godfather, themes include the American dream, family, power, reason, loyalty, betrayal, and the patriarchy. These themes are supported by the story’s subplots. For example, Fredo’s subplot supports the themes of loyalty and betrayal, Sonny’s subplot supports the theme of reason, and Connie’s subplot supports the theme of the patriarchy.


A motif is something threaded throughout a story that is evocative and generally supports the theme of the story. Writers sometimes confuse motif with theme. A motif is not a theme, but it supports a theme. It may be something abstract, like beauty, weather, music, friendship, or emotion.  It may be something more concrete, a repeated image or pattern or sound, something physical that can be touched, seen, smelled, heard, or tasted. Concrete motifs might be a particular type of weather, like rain, or a particular music, like jazz, or something like fire, food, water, or light. Whatever it is, a motif appears repeatedly throughout a story.

Abstract motifs that are woven throughout The Godfather trilogy include corruption and revenge. More concrete motifs include doors, oranges, cigarettes, and the kiss of death. These motifs are all threaded throughout the story, have deeper meanings and symbolism behind them, and connect to the main themes of the story in a way that makes them more powerful.

Incorporating texture into your story can happen as you begin to write, or it can be layered into your story during the revision process. It doesn’t have to be over the top—in fact, you don’t want too much texture to overwhelm your story. It can be subtle, and subtle can often be more powerful. But as with physical textures, texture in your writing will add interest and elevate your prose.