The Only 5 Ingredients You Need for Story Subtext

The Only 5 Ingredients You Need for Story SubtextIf 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.

For Example:

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.

Dastan as child Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia creates story subtext in its character relationships by showing us two fixed points of context, the first being Dastan’s salvation from the streets as a child by the king.

Then the story skips forward to an adult Dastan’s devoted but often strained relationship with his adopted brothers. That’s fixed point #2.

Dastan and his brothers Prince of Persia Jake Gyllenhaal2

It then flashes forward to show us the understandably strained, but somehow still devoted relationship between Dastan and his adopted royal brothers.

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.

For Example:

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.

Hong Kong Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim creates a sense of depth and richness in its world by using story subtext to hint at complexity far beyond what is explicitly revealed in the plot.

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 worldbuildingof 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.

For Example:

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.

Matt Damon Bourne Identity Final Battle

Jason Bourne carries almost all of the story subtext in his stories single-handedly thanks to the trust shown in viewers to extrapolate his past.

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.

For Example:

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.

Dean Winchester Supernatural Jensen Ackles

Supernatural‘s Dean Winchester is a deeply conflicted character who benefits from story subtext in allowing his cocky facade to hide his deep pain—and his better self.

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?

For Example:

Consider these two excellent examples of authorial restraint in not allowing characters to spell things out to one another.

The Book Thief Markus ZusakThe 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.

Year Zero Jeff LongThe 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.”

“What ships?”

“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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Blade Runner continues to be one of my favorites for this very reason. The deep question in the movie doesn’t arise until Rachel asks Deckard, “Have you ever tried to take that test yourself?” This is the hinge that changes the rest of the movie because now we have a question that is never satisfactorily answered, even though we have strong hints of how it should be. When one couples Tyrell’s quote: “‘More human than human’ is our motto,” with Roy’s “Tears in the rain” speech, we now have a movie that is far more thoughtful and introspective than the hard-boiled detective story it is on the surface.

    Thank you for talking about the “blank space” that makes backstory work and never once mentioning Taylor Swift.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Not Taylor Swift fan, so I actually have no idea what you’re even talking about. :p

    • The novel Blade Runner’s based on is rich with the same kind of subtext, only it’s allowed to expand to questions like “What’s the point of being human?” and “Is being human really worth striving for?” There’s so much subtext boiling in the things left unsaid between Deckard and his emotionally-challenged wife (who’s only in a handful of scenes), I’ll be heartbroken if she isn’t incorporated into the second movie.

  2. This is so helpful. I think this is going to be one I refer back to time and again. (Especially again today after I’ve had my 2nd cup of coffee since this is an area I’m definitely struggling with in my own work!)

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In my opinion, mastery of subtext is an “advanced” facet of storytelling. I’m definitely still working on it myself.

    • This is great info, but I admittedly don’t grasp everything yet!

      • Here’s what I’m thinking, and Katie please jump in if you think I’m wrong.

        I’m a history fan but I don’t like rote learning of what happened when. Why did those people do what they did, and then how did those events shape our current world? How do they affect the decisions we make now?

        As the author, I know everything about my characters and their backstories (at least, until I think of something new!) I get to pick which details I tell the readers. In the hospital scene I quoted, all of the characters know what happened in the past and how everyone acts towards one another. It doesn’t need to be repeated in dialogue between them, unless someone needs to be reminded of something important. I’m looking for how those past events (The Ghost) affects what people do now, and how they treat each other. I think Katie’s saying to use a minimalist approach, saying as little as you can but still provide the reader with enough pieces to construct the framework, to suggest answers to the questions that have been raised.

        In my example, why is Dad reluctant to go see his father in the hospital? Once there, he calls him stubborn. He says to his mother, “Don’t you have anything better to wear” as they go to the restaurant. It becomes obvious there’s a strained relationship. I don’t need to detail exactly what happened, but fill in some feelings when Grandma finally goes off.

        “Why are you so ashamed of us? Your grandfather built that town.”

        “Thirty houses?”

        “That’s thirty families his mill provided opportunities for.”

        “I wasn’t looking forward to digging in the dirt and shoveling [excrement] my whole life.”

        That, and Katie’s “quote” from my email about the dichotomies between outward behavior and inner feelings, remind me of lyrics from the song I entitled my story after

        Then I hurt myself to see it too,
        To feel the knife I put in you
        My heart as broken as my ways
        I never should’ve let it pass,
        This fall was never meant to last
        The reason gone and damage stays

        “The reason gone and damage stays”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          As I mention in the post, one of the sure signs of the potential for subtext is any aspect of a character or situation that makes us ask a question. The father’s behavior toward the son is a prime example of this. Why is he so hard on his son? When we get a glimpse of his own relationship with his parents, it provides an answer *without* needing to be on the nose or spell it out.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        But that’s the most exciting part, right? So much subtext to explore in our exploration of subtext. 😉

  3. This is great! That first point was like a light dawning on a very dark place for me. Can’t wait to put these tips to use. Subtext doesn’t seem so airy-fairy now. 🙂

    Thank you, thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Understanding subtext was like “a light dawning on a very dark place for me as well.” Actually, that’s not a bad metaphor for subtext period. :p

  4. What a thought-provoking piece! So many little responses gather in my brain to this (including a transistor physics analogy that suffered deletion).

    But two main questions rise to my mind:
    First, how differently would you handle setting relative to character regarding subtext? My personal preference has been that, if your name isn’t Brandon Sanderson, you’re not sharing enough about your world, but I know not everyone read the Silmarillion and Tolkien’s appendices with bated breath, like I did.

    For my own novel, I curbed that tendency, but my beta readers are still coming to me both with questions outside the scope of my novel and questions I thought I gave clues to, but the clues were missed. I’m torn how much more to go add without adding scope to the novel or doing info dumps. Would you tend to try answer those questions directly in the text if they do not advance the plot directly?

    The second question is what is the role of subtext in narrative? Some of my favorite scenes in books, rather than screenplays, involve characters alone in their own minds, as those are the sequel scenes visual media can’t cover. How do you create subtext in those? Is it as valuable in those instances?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In a lot of ways, I’ve come to realize that a novel *is* subtext. It’s there in large part to explore the subtext of character and setting–which is then contrasted with the context that appears between the characters themselves (as we see in the examples above from The Book Thief and Year Zero). Still, there will always be things that will be the stronger for not referencing them explicitly.

      For example, we want to resist the temptation to allow our characters to understand *themselves* too clearly. I was just working on a character this morning who wants to believe he’s a very different person from who he really is. This presents a lot of great opportunity to subtextually contrast his outlook with his actions–without having to spell anything out.

      As for questions of setting, it really does depend on both the story and your skill in sharing descriptive details. Some setting descriptions are so delicious in themselves they make a book worth reading, even if they’re not strictly necessary to the plot. If your readers are asking for more, that’s a good sign. I’d consider giving them a little more, but you don’t want to completely satisfy them. If you answer all their questions, they won’t engage with the story as strongly as they are right now.

  5. You had me in suspense with each passing paragraph to see what exactly it was that I had said! Although, in fairness I must point out the quoted sentence was your response to me.

    For the readers, in my story one of the secondary characters (there throughout) finds out from a third party that his sister is messing around with his cousin (and her cousin as well, the MC). There’s a confrontation and it nearly comes to blows. He reluctantly backs down, but says, “You better not hurt her!” One of my comments was that I had to continue to acknowledge the feelings in the thread. As a result, it takes several weeks for the brother to on the outside become comfortable with things. My comment to K.M. was, “but who knows what’s festering on the inside!” So I’ll make sure to occasionally thrown in an awkward situation, even if nothing is said – and eventually, he does hurt her. I’m still working on reactions there.

    At the moment I’m writing the chapter where Grandpa is in the hospital. Mom has to tell Dad, “You are going!” Dad grumbles to Grandma about Grandpa’s stubbornness. Finally Grandma’s had enough and vents, so there’s some explanation, but I’ll make sure to keep it to the theme in order to advance the plot and provide the foreshadowing. She thinks Dad resents them being farmers, says she’s thrilled with what he’s done with his life (gone to college, become a high school teacher) but says, “Don’t forget where you learned hard work!” What Dad truly values is hard work, that’s what he doesn’t see in his son, and thus their strained relationship

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! My blunders sometimes. :p Well, at any rate I was only rephrasing back to you what you were saying to me, so you still get total credit for the breakthrough.

  6. I needed this reminder today! I realized as I was reading how often I end up telling instead of showing my character’s emotions. Your post has definitely given me food for thought about how to make the subtext clear in my first edit. Thanks!

  7. This is very helpful!! I’ll definitely be incorporating this into my next story. This post was perfect timing, too–I’m in the planning stages of a new short(-ish) story right now.

  8. “Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself–and that already is a charming job–and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think of it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.” Henry James From the preface of THE ASPERN PAPERS about “The Turn of the Screw.”

    The problem with the kind of subtext you are mentioning is that you must choose what must be on the top side of the iceberg. To choose the wrong things is to annoy the reader who hates nothing more than to be lied to deliberately or by omission.

    A type of subtext you don’t mention is symbolism/imagery which speaks from and to the subconscious. This is best done by the author unconsciously during the first draft then discovered and built upon during the rewriting process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s true. That’s the dilemma of the author in a nutshell. Which are the right things to show? Which will shape the story in the best possible way? Largely, it’s a work of trial and error.

  9. So, it’s kind of like salt, when rightly added it’s invisible, you shouldn’t notice it’s presence or absence.

  10. This is incredibly helpful. I’ve always loved those books that didn’t quite say what they meant – where you know what the author means, but part of the reason it’s so powerful is because they never say it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “sideways” books. Yes, to me, those are always some of the most brilliant, and I stand in awe of the authors’ wisdom and restraint.

  11. Fascinating, and something I will probably read again and again to try to grasp it better.

    Curious, when writing for younger readers, when would you say subtext can begin to be used in stories? Middle grade, or even younger?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would say there’s *always* room for subtext, but obviously more and more as they grow older. Think about classic kids’ movies, such as Toy Story. Kids love them, but the subtext and the humor is much deeper than most of them realize–which is why we still love them as adults. The deeper the subtext, the more opportunity a story has to grow *with* readers and viewers. This is true no matter how old we are.

      • Or the `Frog and Toad’ books by Arnold Lobel. I loved them as a kid, and when I got older, I became amazed by how much he could say in just a few words. Frog and Toad’s relationship is so sweet, you see the pattern of their friendship, how Toad grounds Frog, while Frog pushes Toad to try new things, and how much they both value each other. There’s a reason those books are still around.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I definitely think that’s the difference between classic kids’ books and ones we end up disliking as adults.

  12. Andrewiswriting says:

    I was discussing Frank Zappa at the weekend with a mate, and he said that he never got what all the fuss was about. I told him that one of the things I always liked about Zappa was his use of negative space. Of playing something, then playing something else while the listener is ‘haunted’ by the echo of the last thing, to create a subliminal version of the over-produced layering others often do.

    I think that’s something of an analogy for what you’re describing here.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! Music in general is a great analogy because we might even go so far as to argue that *all* of music (particularly instrumental) is subtext. It’s all open for interpretation, and the tremendous subjectivity that results is why certain songs touch each of so deeply and so personally. As authors, we’re much harder pressed to create that level of subtext, simply because narrative *is* context, but ultimately that’s what we’re striving for on a lesser level.

  13. Good one boss. This totally expanded my understanding of subtext, which I thought was only related to non-verbal communication. Clearly it’s much more than that!

    You’re very logical in your breakdown and analysis. Glad you and Joe cracked the code. I love the Iceberg principle. It makes a lot of sense. The stories you enjoy most employed a lot if subtext allowing you draw from your imagination. But what also draws you in is the realization of complexity behind the scenes. It makes you want to know more, but the author doesn’t explicit say it.
    That’s so cool. 🙂

    So the authors job is to know which elements are necessary to tell the story and move the plot. In doing so the readers should sense a deeper meaning behind the scenes, which is subtext. If I’m not misunderstanding something.

    Wow. Good stuff. This is like the essence of the story. If we already know our character; his motivations, goal, and conflict, that should make implementing subtext a lot easier. Because you’ll know which elements to bring to the surface and which to keep underneath.

    THIS IS AWESOMESAUCE TO THE THIRD POWER.
    (Awesomesauce3)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’ve totally got it! This is advanced storytelling. If you get this, you’re so far ahead of the curve it’s not even funny–except that it is. 😉

      • I really like this post because it’s very helpful and not to mention, timely. Not sure how you do that. Must be one of your Jedi mind tricks? Well it certainly meets a big need of mine right now. I’m going to put it in my Post hall of Fame.

  14. Again, you wrote a perfect post at the perfect time. I failed at a pitch this weekend at a conference and I’m sure part of the problem is that my novel isn’t “deep” enough. Lacking subtext, if you will.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, “deep”–a word I should have used in this post. Because when we talk about a novel having “depth,” this is almost always the result of subtext within the theme.

  15. Hahaha! I agree with Benjamin, awesomesauce^3!!
    What a wonderfully logical, delicious post about such an intangible topic. I’ll definitely be referring back to this one as I complete my first draft and begin re-writes. It’ll take some time (if it ever actually happens) before I’ll get a handle on this, but I’m excited to go back through what I’ve already written to see how it can be improved using these tools! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, I think the reason I’m so fascinated by storytelling and story theory is that they allow me to be both intuitive and logical. We look at these largely intuitive subjects, such as subtext, and we think they’re impossible to really explain. But if we dig deeper, there is always logic at play. I love figuring out the puzzle pieces!

      • Way to go Sherlock! That’s awesome. I hope you’re putting this in your character Arcs book.

      • That’s a good way of putting it; I agree, I think it’s the same for me. It’s invigorating to find a singular activity (for lack of a better word) that can fully entertain both my logical/analytical side and my artistic/daydreamer side. There’s not much else besides writing that I’ve found can do the trick! ?

        • Oh, and do you know when said character arc book is going to be available? ?
          (Or did I completely miss the boat and it’s been out for forever?!)

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            The character arcs book is getting very near to publication! I think we’re looking at a November 1st launch date (or thereabouts).

        • I am a very analytic type, who writes computer programs to do predictive numerical analysis!

          So I tend to get caught in in the chains of action-reaction sequences which I call ‘threads.’ Everything has to be logical along the thread and between threads, and then decide which parts to write about.

          A beta reader suggested a subplot to me, where a character would be cheating on his wife. I liked the idea, but switched who he’d be having the affair with. In the story, the originally suggested partner mentions the unwanted attention to her boyfriend, and on a followup how she rebuffed the guy. Then it’s seemingly dropped, but instead I include little mentions here and there (in a first person narration) of whenever that guy is in the presence of a different woman, and I wrote her character in a way that would make her likely to engage in that sort of behavior. Many months (and chapters) later, when the relationship is discovered by his wife, hopefully the readers will have a moment when they realize how the pieces fit together.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I’ve often thought about that. Writing is an incredible art form, no matter what angle you look at it from.

  16. What a great job of helping us to understand such a complex and shadowy concept. I have exactly been working on this in my sequel. I’ve truly had to cut and re-write several times to get it right. Not sure I’m there yet, but this will definitely help me get it sorted out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think of Michelangelo’s quote about how a sculpture is already present within a block of stone: he just has to whittle away the excess to reveal it. That’s a sound analogy for writing as well, particularly in regard to subtext. We start with a big blob of narrative, and slowly whittle it down to reveal the essential story at its core.

  17. I don’t know if this is appropriate to put here, but I’ll give it a whirl. Upon encountering this, I immediately thought of this post. Hilarious subtext in a nutshell:
    https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED&fref=nf

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Looks like it went straight to his newsfeed, so I’m not sure which post you’re referencing?

      • Oh, it’s Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs) reading a letter from his mother (Mondays With Mother?), detailing her recent ordeal of losing her purse at Walmart. It’s just dripping with sarcasm and judgment, but in a humorous way.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Ah, I got it! Thanks. And, yes, sarcasm and irony is actually a tremendous tool for subtext–since they always say the opposite of what is actually intended.

  18. These are great guidelines. I’ve always found the concept of subtext about as easy to nail down as smoke and steam.

    I have an important scene where one heroine is arguing against letting her friend go on an important mission. Because of rule 1 — I’d firmly established she and her friend were like sisters to each other — I figured I’d get away with not having her spell out her fears in the dialogue. Even when she strongly implies their spymaster is letting his own desire for vengeance cloud his judgement she never says, “I’m scared / what if she dies / how dare you recklessly risk her life!” You just assume that’s where she’s coming from.

    Based on the criteria here I now know what to look for in edits, and what I should do to accomplish subtext *on purpose*. These are the clearest guidelines I’ve ever seen so thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The scene you’re describing sounds like an excellent opportunity for subtextual dialogue. I love it when a conversation can bring its primary emotion to the fore (“I’m afraid!” “I love you!” “I’m so unhappy!”) without ever using the key emotional word.

  19. James Griffith says:

    K.M. I often comment on your FB posts. This article on subtext caught my interest. I often like to leave hints in my writing, and dialog, that something other then one is reading is also there, but they will find out at the same time my protagonist finds out. The protagonist may be tough on the outside and thoughtful on the inside or visa versa, but I only hit at those emotions. He may be deep and dark in his heart, but keep it in, pushes it back, afraid to turn it lose, because when he does, he will not be responsible for his actions. I hint at these things to the reader. The reader keeps reading to see when he can no longer keep this dark thing inside, but they don’t know what it really is, but from his background, they know it might be there. Is this subtext I’ve been using, but did not know what to call it? The hints are usually not in your face, one has to ask a question about what I tell them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, this is subtext! And one of my favorite types as well. I love characters who are trying to keep the darkness at bay but eventually have to face it.

      • Jim Griffith says:

        Thank you. Doing the final edit and getting ready for the HTML work up on this book. Proofreaders really liked it. Out next month, I hope, The second in my Death Rides series, Death Rides the Sacramento, and the third ready for the proof readers Death Rides the Missouri, a fourth coming, Death Rides Decoy Q-29. I could have other titles, but found when I put Death Rides in the title, they sell. My most popular book, Death Rides the Bannack Trail. Bannack is spelled incorrectly, they just spelled it wrong when they named the town. LOL.

  20. Thank you, Katie!
    Less 0n-the-nose (lazy writing) — more subtle, more subtext.
    The art is to make the reader draw their own conclusions, without being so explicit.
    Therein lies the art, that needs perfection — or rather mastery.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Indeed. The whole trick of it is still getting across *your* story but without being 100% explicit about it. It’s a delightful challenge!

  21. Max Woldhek says:

    I really worry about this part, just as I worry about providing foreshadowing. I don’t know if it’s because of my Asperger’s, but the “subtle stuff” (TM) just tends to bounce right off my skull. I almost always miss the subtext in both stories ( the concept of “death flags” baffled me at first) and real life (I tend to be the last in my social circles to learn of certain things, and only when others spell them out to me).

    If I can’t comprehend them for myself, how am I supposed to provide them for others?

    Ps. I’ve read Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel twice now, taking notes the second time, and I’ve read 5 secrets of story structure, per your recommendation, as well as The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester. I finally feel ready to start on the first serious rewrite of my first book (three of the first four chapters are getting the axe, for example).
    To quote a character from the third Transformers movie: “This is going to hurt! A lot!” 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I do think that being able to break subtext down into this logical formula will help a lot. If you understand what it is, you can create it without have to “feel” it, to to speak.

    • I’m very sympathetic to this. My daughter is a bright young girl on the Autism Spectrum (high functioning), but I see a lot of myself in her, and I am an engineer who spends a lot of time in a very literal mode of understanding the world. On the other hand, I scored very high on the the verbal SAT and similar interpretive tasks, and I’m convinced, like K.M. says, that interpretation and construction of subtext is a skill that can be learned.

      When I’m interpreting subtext, I try to switch between the viewpoints of different characters. For each, I ask myself:

      1. Who is this person?
      2. What do they want?
      3. What are they literally saying or doing?
      4. What might they be trying to say or do?
      5. Why might the two differ?

      #4 and #5 constitute the grand puzzle of the character, the one that always fascinates me. Answering it for any character usually makes understanding all the other characters (and any unexplained pieces of the plot) much easier to gather.
      Because anything a character cares enough to lie about, especially to himself, is a secret near and dear to his or her heart. These are anxiety, pride, anger, fear, love, and hatred, or refusal to accept what they see because it is too alien or painful to comprehend. Or maybe they are only the little white lies to spare the feelings of others. Either way, it is the exploration of those secrets and impulses that engage the reader and provide that Aha! moment of sympathy and discovery that mystery readers, especially, love.

      Once you understand those secrets, you can create your own scavenger hunt, and hide them for others to find. But they are not alien entities, but only a puzzle, and you just have to learn how to see the clues.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        This is a great addition to the overall discussion, Sean. Thanks for sharing! I, too, believe the execution of subtext ultimately comes down to truly understanding your characters and their situations.

  22. Looking for some TV shows on Hulu that I hadn’t seen before, I settled on “DCI Banks”, a detective show set in Yorkshire (where my family’s from.)

    Shortly after the beginning of the second episode the Chief Inspector and his detectives are surveying the scene and interviewing witness. He asks some questions, then his new female detective as the man additional questions. I noticed the Chief Inspector give a nod, after which the witness answered the questions.

    Studying subtext here helped me pick up on the non-verbal clue – that the witness was looking for confirmation that it the female detective had proper authority to be doing an investigation.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ah, nice. I love that kind of stuff in films–where they trust you, as the viewer, to get it, without flashing a blazing red sign in your face.

  23. Scott Woodson says:

    Thank you so much Katie for this article on subtext! I recognized it in books and movies but never knew what it was called until now. This will open up a whole new world for me in my writing. I have created subtext in my writing, but only at the subconscious level. Now that I know what it is, I think my writing will greatly improve. This is awesome and so are you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Subtext really is a whole new step up. It opens this wider world of stories within stories. Have fun! 😀

  24. These tactics are terrifyingly effective in lore-driven video games.

    I’m glad you posted this, because there is a lot of lore and a vast world that has been built for the stories I’ve been planning. Subtext will be the key to enriching the world that will envelop my audiences. This will inevitably help me cut down on word count and -explicit- content, while enriching the story as well as massively increasing the total content.

    I’m surprised you didn’t make mention of using subtext as a deadly weapon for foreshadowing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Terrifyingly effective.” Yup, that’s subtext. 🙂

      • Yes! I must tell you that I’ve been writing for decades (yeah, I’m old) but only recently decided I wanted to actually study and improve my writing. This article was an epiphany. Miles to go.

        You asked for examples. Here’s an early attempt in a fictional mystery/suspense novel in process. Focus is PTSD from combat and corporate pressure cookers:

        “Hey guys, what do you say to a team leader who says we gotta be in the lab at oh-seven-hundred hours on a Saturday morning?” Dent dead-panned as if he was about to complain. “You say ‘Yes, ma’am! And do you need us tomorrow morning before or after church?’ ” The tight group crowded around the too small circular table roared with good-natured laughter and back-slapping. Sharon rewarded Dent with a grateful grin.

        She found it amusing that even after all these years, Dent still thought in military time. You could tell the Army and gauzy memories of third-world combat still dominated his DNA. What did this guy have to go through for the rest of us to be here, laughing? The mind boggled. Perhaps more than her other guys, he earned his seat at this table. And when he was having a good day…

  25. This is one of those things I think I’ve got covered when I write a scene. But when you lay out how it works so clearly here, I feel like I have to go back to the beginning of my novel and review every piece of dialogue, because I’m *sure* I haven’t done it consistently or well. And you’ve made it seem so easy! 😉 At least, I feel I can tackle this and incorporate this into my dialogue.

Trackbacks

  1. […] wound, Eileen Cook suggests using dialogue to build conflict, and K. M. Weiland delineates the only 5 ingredients you need for story subtext and uses Marvel movies to explore the right way and wrong way to foreshadow a […]

  2. […] Weiland did a recent Helping Writers Become Authors post and podcast about subtext. It is an excellent resource to assist the writer or the reader through the literary dark forest […]

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