If there’s a magic ingredient in writing, it’s story subtext.
It’s actually not magic, of course, any more than any of the other demystified techniques of structure, theme, or character arc. But story subtext often seems like magic simply because, by its very nature, it is the execution of the unexplained.
Subtext is supposed to be invisible. It lives in the shadowy underworld beneath our words. It’s the hooded figure whisking around the dark corners of our stories, the mysterious clockmaker greasing gears behind the scenes, the phantom in our opera.
Just the very mention of subtext gives me delicious chills. A few years ago, I came to the revelation that all of my favorite stories had one very specific thing in common: subtext. All of them were stories that were about far more than what they appeared to be on the surface. They were all stories that invited me, as the reader or viewer, into the misty netherworld of the story to ask questions about characters and situations, to fill in blanks, to come to conclusions, and to broaden my experience of both the stories and my life.
Good story subtext allows readers to observe and learn without being taught. Subtext tells readers the author trusts them to understand the story and the characters without needing to have everything pointed out to them.
In short, story subtext = awesomesauce.
Why Story Subtext Is So Difficult to Master
So there I was—a total convert to the importance of story subtext. I even wrote a post about how you must put subtext into your stories. But then the inevitable queries starting coming in:
How do I create subtext in my story?
Uhhh. Good question. I could tell you what story subtext is, but because it is largely the science of what is not, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to quantify.
My exploration of how to avoid on-the-nose dialogue helped me get a mental foot in the door. But even in my own writing, I found myself stumbling through conscious attempts to create story subtext, while all those mysterious underworld manifestations snickered behind my back.
But, then, thanks to a comment from Wordplayer Joe Long (which I’ll share below), it suddenly all clicked for me and the story-subtext code was cracked.
The 5 Steps to Cracking Story Subtext’s Secret Code
Today, I’m going to show you how to create story subtext in everything you write using five simple but crucial principles.
1. Story Subtext Arises From the Space Between Two Known, Fixed Points
This is why story subtext is so often confusing. If it’s all about what’s not shown, then how can you possibly show it? How can readers ever see the subtext you want them to see if you’re not actually showing them anything? If you’re not filling in the important blanks, aren’t readers just as likely to read entirely the wrong subtext into your story? (Cue authorial panic.)
Good questions, all. And the answer is simply that subtext only works when it arises from the context.
If subtext is the shadow behind your story, then there must first be figures standing in the sun casting that shadow. Interesting blank spaces can only arise when there are existing shown elements of the story.
How You Can Do This in Your Story:
You start by explicitly telling/showing your readers certain things about your characters, plot, or story world. You tell them what they need to know (otherwise, you have no story). But you do not explain away the spaces in between.
Because readers will see the starting and ending points, they will understand the explicit shape of what you’re creating. But because you are resisting the urge to explain everything in between those points, you are allowing them to discover the implicit shape in between.
Mike Newell’s video-game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is nothing more than a simple adventure story, but one of the reasons I enjoy it time after time after time (pun!) is because of the rich character subtext it offers.
The main character Dastan is a street orphan who was adopted as a child by the king. That’s fixed point #1.
Then the story skips forward to an adult Dastan’s devoted but often strained relationship with his adopted brothers. That’s fixed point #2.
But what happens in between? I am endlessly fascinated by the subtext of these relationships. We are never explicitly told how the brothers feel about each other and why. But we don’t need the story to condescend to tell us because we can extrapolate for ourselves thanks to the clearly fixed points of the context.
2. Story Subtext Must Explicitly Exist Beneath the Surface
Another reason authors often get hung up on understanding subtext is the necessary emphasis on the fact that subtext is what is not shown. This can often lead to the false assumption that the subtext is basically nonexistent. It’s a blank space.
But nothing could be farther from the truth.
Subtext is very explicit. It’s very real.
If you think of subtext as Ernest Hemingway’s “9/10ths of the iceberg under the water,” then you realize the invisible bulk of the iceberg absolutely exists. It must exist, in the author’s intentions and in the story’s allusions, if it is to carry any weight.
Otherwise, it is nothing but a blank. The story’s grounding in realism will become wobbly and unsatisfying, and readers will easily realize the author doesn’t actually have a clue what his story is really about or where his characters came from.
How You Can Do This in Your Story:
Since the whole idea of story subtext is that you’re not supposed to look at it in the direct light of day, writers often get the feeling they’re supposed to tiptoe around their own stories’ subtext, never looking at it.
This is exactly what you shouldn’t do.
It’s true you’re not going to give your readers a direct look at your subtext, but you absolutely must be thoroughly familiar with it. The subtext must exist—the iceberg must be under the water—if the story on top is going to have any chance of floating.
Create your story’s subtext deliberately. This requires an absolute understanding of your characters’ backstories, motivations, and goals, as well as a firm grip on the world around your characters.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is one of my favorite movies, largely because its subtext is so rich. Like Prince of Persia, it’s a simple action flick on its surface. But it rises above the genre thanks to its storytellers’ rock-solid grasp of everything in their story world.
We sense this post-apocalyptic world, scourged by the alien kaiju monsters, is a rich, interesting, and very real place. We don’t learn everything there is to know about it (because all that stuff isn’t important to the plot). But we see enough fixed points within the context—the black market, the military tech, the cults, the Wall of Life—to understand there is a wealth of subtext under the surface.
Even for viewers who don’t visit these possibilities within their imaginations, the sense of a wider world makes the story seem that much bigger, more authentic, and more meaningful.
3. Story Subtext Must Remain Under the Surface
Once you’ve created context on the surface and subtext beneath the surface, that’s where they both must stay.
This can be a lot more difficult than it sounds. When you go to all the trouble of creating delicious backstory or worldbuilding, of course you want to share it! You love every little detail about your story, and you want to share every one of those details with your readers.
You also want to make sure readers get the subtext. Sometimes I find myself creating beautifully subtextual scenes—and then ending them with an explicit explanation, either because I want to make sure readers get it or even because I love what I’ve created so much I just want to jump and down and say, “See! See! Did you see how awesome that was?”
Naturally, I have to go back and delete my sometimes paranoid, sometimes exuberant excesses. I have to trust the subtext to carry itself—which it cannot do if I raise it above the surface into context.
The one exception to this is important story revelations. Often, you will keep certain aspects of your story (backstory secrets, antagonistic clues, etc.) under the surface for most of the story before revealing them in important scenes that advance the plot.
How You Can Do This in Your Story:
Resist the Urge to Explain. It’s as simple as that. Get into the habit of avoiding on-the-nose explanations in which you spell things out for readers.
This is especially true of dialogue. Although characters certainly will say things straight sometimes, make it a habit to force them into talking around subjects or coming at things sidelong or metaphorically. Whenever you find a character saying exactly what he means, stop and question whether you’re spoon-feeding readers information that would be more powerful if it remained under your story’s surface.
Jason Bourne is possibly my all-time favorite character for the simple reason that he is never on-the-nose. He exists almost entirely within his own subtext. For most of the series, he is a mystery even to himself, thanks to his amnesia. We see definite fixed points within his personality and his past, but his near-silence forces/allows us to extrapolate his true motivations and feelings.
Were the character ever to sit down with a shrink and start explaining every detail about his experiences and emotions, the subtext would surface, and the depth and complexity of the character would be obliterated. It’s the great restraint shown in these stories that make them intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving.
4. Story Subtext Is Created by Dichotomy
The best and most interesting story subtext is always that which arises out of a seeming dichotomy. When the fixed points of your story’s context seem like they don’t quite align, that immediately sparks readers’ curiosity. What exists between these dichotomous fixed points that might explain the mystery?
You know you’ve discovered the potential for story subtext when something in your character’s behavior or the world around him makes you curious, makes you start asking questions.
Note, however, that subtext cannot arise from an explicit question. If you raise an explicit question in your story, readers will always expect an explicit answer. The moment anything becomes explicit, it ceases to be subtext.
Instead, these dichotomies must remain implicit questions. These arise when readers are led to believe the truth about a character or a situation is different from how it appears on the surface.
This was the revelation, given to me by Wordplayer Joe Long, that finally cracked the code of story subtext for me. He wrote in an email:
It’s always great when there can be a definite dichotomy between interior and exterior behavior. Truly that’s the heart of subtext.
Indeed, this is also the heart of character arc, which means the core of your character’s journey can be made all the more powerful through a judicious use of subtext.
How You Can Do This in Your Story:
Avoid presenting characters and situations for exactly what they are. This can be tricky for you, as the author, since you know exactly what’s going on. But resist the urge to share everything with readers right away. Allow the truth to be a story-long discovery for them.
This is especially valuable in character development. If your character is a good person deep down, great. But you don’t necessarily need to spell that out for readers right away. Show them something else. Show them the façade the character presents to the world, and only allow the subtext about his true nature to show through his actions.
Supernatural‘s Dean Winchester is a fabulous character, largely because he’s deeply and endlessly conflicted—and because that conflict is allowed to remain largely subtextual. Viewers are shown conflicting truths about him: on the surface he is an irresponsible, obnoxious playboy, and yet, in a seeming paradox, he also cares deeply about others, even to the point of brutal self-sacrifice.
The dichotomy raises questions. Why is this character this way? What is the internal conflict driving these contradictions? And which of these aspects of his nature is the true aspect?
5. Story Subtext Exists in the Silent Spaces
So far, I’ve been using movies as examples of story subtext. This is largely because the visual, exterior nature of film allows them to be far more subtextual than written narrative fiction.
Even though all these principles apply in written fiction, it’s important to realize you will usually need to spell out more in a book than in a movie. Things that can be implied in a film will leave readers confused if they aren’t explained or at least referenced in a book.
However, there is a simple trick for maintaining at least the illusion of subtext within a book. Cultivate your characters’ silence. Even when the story requires you to explain certain things to readers, resist the temptation to have your characters spell everything out to each other.
If you were to apply the same subtext-laden dialogue from a movie (in which viewers have no idea what the characters are thinking) in a book (in which at least the narrator’s thoughts are on display), you can still achieve almost the same effect of complexity and depth by simply cultivating the subtext of silence between the two characters.
How You Can Do This in Your Story:
Do not—repeat do not—allow your characters to tell each other exactly what they’re thinking. Whenever you find your characters spelling things out plainly, take a step back. Is this information absolutely crucial to the advancement of the plot or the readers’ understanding of what’s going on?
If not, axe it.
If so, take another look. Can you rephrase the explicitness of the dialogue to keep some of that iceberg under the water even while sharing the necessary information?
Consider these two excellent examples of authorial restraint in not allowing characters to spell things out to one another.
The first is from The Book Thief, Markus Zusak’s award-winning Young Adult saga of Nazi Germany. In it, the main character, Liesel thinks the explicit words she wishes to say to her doomed best friend Rudy. Readers understand exactly how she feels. But because she doesn’t say the words aloud to Rudy himself, they remain a powerful subtext between them.
As promised, they walked far down the road toward Dachau. They stood in the trees. There were long shapes of light and shade. Pinecones were scattered like cookies.
Thank you, Rudy.
For everything. For helping me off the road, for stopping me…
She said none of it.
The second example is an even simpler one. In Jeff Long’s apocalyptic thriller Year Zero, readers were with protagonist Nathan Lee in a harrowing scene, where he futilely attempted to flag down an American aircraft carrier off the coast of Alaska. Readers fully understand this explicit context to the following conversation, even though this scene’s narrating character, Miranda, does not.
“She was a pilot in the Navy,” Miranda said. “On one of those ships that never came home.”
“You must have heard about them. The mapping and search expeditions. They went out to take stock of the planet, but no one made it home. The satellites pick them up here and there. Ghost ships circling in the ocean. Like the Lost Dutchman.”
Nathan Lee fell silent. Miranda thought it must have to do with his own loss. He looked haunted.
Nathan Lee could have acknowledged his recognition of the ship with one simple line: “I saw it.” Instead, he falls silent, allowing the subtext of his pain to deepen—even though readers know exactly what he is thinking.
Story subtext may be magic, but it is also completely applicable. Once you master these five principles, you can step out of its shadows and wield it with purpose and power. The result will be stories of maturity, complexity, and profound depth.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the story subtext in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!
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