I Just Figured Out What All My Favorite Stories Have in Common—and It Blew My Mind

I Just Figured Out What All My Favorite Stories Have in Common—and It Blew My Mind

This week’s video talks about the secret ingredient that can take even mediocre ideas and turn them into your readers’ favorite stories, worthy of five stars.

Video Transcript:

For those of you who follow my book reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, you may have noticed I hardly ever give five-star reviews. I read over a hundred books a year, and my average number of five-star reviews for novels is maybe one a year.

For me, a five-star book is not just one that’s perfectly crafted, but one that for some magical, mystical, unnamable reason connected with me beyond intellectual appreciation and onto a deeply personal and emotional level. I say it’s an unnamable reason because I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on what it is about some stories that sends me over the moon—until now. It dawned on me here recently that all of my five-star stories have one particular thing in common. And that one thing is a wealth of subtext.

So what’s subtext?

Subtext is what isn’t said, but only hinted at. Subtext is the space between the lines in the story. It’s important because it’s what creates a sense of layered depth—and therefore stronger verisimilitude—in a story.

But it’s even more important because of the blank spaces it reveals in your story. Why? Because these blanks are what will engage your readers’ imaginations. My favorite stories are ones that live on after I’ve closed the book or walked out of the theater. They’re not just good stories—in fact, sometimes they might not even be great stories—but they’re stories I just can’t let go of because they’ve grabbed my imagination.

Now, it’s important to note that it’s not enough just to create blanks in your story. That’s not going to help readers at all. That’s just going to confuse them. You have to create pregnant blanks. Blanks that are full of hints about your characters’ pasts, their relationships, their desires, their motivations. You have to give readers a starting point for discovering the wealth of everything that lies under the surface of your story. Do that, and you’ll be earning five-star reviews all over the place—even from me.

Tell me your opinion: Can you identify the common thread that all your favorite stories have in common?

I Just Figured Out What All My Favorite Stories Have in Common—and It Blew My Mind

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I 100% agree with this post! This is why books like The Lord of the Rings are so good — you know there is much more going on in the story’s world than what you see “on screen,” action and history in the peripheral mists. We love the story because the “pregnant blanks” are filled with our own stuff. And the imaginative exercise we get from reading such books is probably a big part of why so many of us want to write our own stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      More often than not, the stuff I come up with to fill those blanks ends up being my favorite part of the story–even though it’s not *technically* a part of the story at all.

    • Yeah! I know what you mean about subtext in Tolkien. The line in the Hobbit “even if I have to go to the East of East and fight the Wearworms in the Last Deasert” has stuck with me since childhood. I can still see the orange skies and the yellow sands and the black worms which I saw when I first heard it. It gave a feeling of length and breadth to the whole world that he had created, and hinted at lands beyond lands of which you had never heard of, and of which you might never hear, but which were always there waiting full of adventures!
      Sorry to go on and on about it, but it is one of my favourite books.

  2. I think subtext is what gets some awful books “over,” too (well, that and maybe sex–but that’s another topic). I agree that it is gold.

    I am one of those people who writes tons and tons of back story. Did I say tons enough? Hundreds of thousands of words of character stuff and story world stuff. The tricky part for me–and what I could use a little guidance on–is how to know what to leave out and/or “maybe” just hint at.

    Also, I think to do subtext really well on purpose (as opposed to folks who are savants or who have been writing well forever…), you have to take more time with a story. Perhaps more than some authors can manage in this “publish or die” world that Amazon created. Unless there is some kind of , I dunno…magic formula or method for checking that you have good subtext…

    • Not from much experience, but I assume the answer to “how much to include” involves a lot of taking stuff in and out and in and out again.
      Having a richly developed back story content would come very useful in this process. And yes, this probably takes more time that many can afford.

    • Yes, how do you tell if you write good subtext? As a beginner writer, I always wonder about providing the right level of subtlety for the back story. A bit Goldilocks? Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Any tips?

    • I worry about the idea that strong subtext may take more time than contemporary authors have, because that’s a pretty slippery slope. Much of what goes into crafting a great novel takes time. It takes time to craft a strong character. It takes time to develop effective conflict and tension. It takes time to work out logic problems, and to craft compelling scenes. Subtext is no different.

      You’re right, Diogeneia, that the contemporary publishing industry does sometimes value publishing fast versus publishing well, especially when it comes to building a readership. But the optimist in me (not to mention the editor) would like to believe that, over the long term, the authors who take a little longer to craft great novels maintain that following more effectively than the ones who toss out pretty good novels.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First, in regard to the idea that subtext takes a lot of time: I’d say that depends. In my experience, subtext is always *there* in a story. It’s not something we create, so much as discover. Discovering it *can* be a time-consuming process, but sometimes not, depending on how well we learn to observe the story and listen to what it’s whispering.

      As for knowing how much to include, that’s both a subjective process that depends on each story *and* a matter of trial and error. When in doubt, it’s better to err on the side of less rather than more. Run the story by some beta readers. If they’re missing the clues, then that’s a sign you need to add a little more text to the sub.

  3. thomas h cullen says:

    Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, just recently, I realised what a hollow story it was.

    An ape civilisation, equipped with pronounced social dynamics, human-levels of communication, architecture, and battle-stratagem… Where was the time? Where was the “treatment”? Here was a story unto itself, instead being mere story-opener.

    One of my favourite films, ‘Scream’, has so much fascinating sound and visual identity: the setting sun, amidst a beautiful landscape (used twice in the film). Drew Barrymore’s blonde, to Neve Campbell’s brunette. A kitchen, for the finale…

    “Content is its own merit.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Haven’t watched Dawn, although I know some people who thought it was quite profound.

    • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was incredible! It contained so much commentary on what it is to be human versus animal. But I’m also a longtime fan of the original Planet of the Apes movies. I’m very pleased with how the remakes are developing.

      • Brian Cartwright says:

        I wrote these comments (along with others in the same link) about “Dawn” a few months ago – ” “Rise” concerned the ethics of animal testing, “Dawn” has moved on to Cowboys & Indians – how can two groups of sentient beings coexist in this place? This movie portrays humans and apes as equals competing for resources, and really just show apes as people, only some other group.” http://www.nationalreview.com/human-exceptionalism/382684/planet-apes-not-war-humans-wesley-j-smith

        In the beginning they said something like 10 years had elapsed. Perhaps it required more time to get to this point, but they were relying on a suspension of disbelief to be able to start telling the present story.

  4. Subtext, to me, is less of what is left off the page and more of the hidden story within the story.

    My favorite stories (not just novels, but movies and tv shows as well) have a plot moving forward, engaging the audience in the immediacy of what is happening. All the while, somewhere in the background, is what the story is actually about, and it isn’t about the characters or the plot but really the THEME. Often times, the hidden story (subtext) isn’t revealed outright, and it takes some time to mull things over until my brain reaches the point of “oh, THAT’S what it was about!”

    Stories stick with us long after we’re finished engaging with them because the subtext will connect with things in the real world. More than just one character or one story world or setting, we will find examples of the underlying meaning in so many other places. And that to me is what makes a truly compelling story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Equating subtext with theme is a fundamental place to start. I was just thinking about this in regard to The Good Shepherd. On the surface, it’s a story about a CIA agent. But, of course, that’s not *really* what it’s about. What it’s really about is a man and his family.

    • Howard Koor says:

      Beautifuly stated. Yes, it’s great when the audience and the character discover what the story is really about together. Two great examples are Rain Man and Ground Hog Day. The main character has one agenda and life comes at each of them in such a way as to have them discover a person inside them that they didn’t know existed.

  5. Great insight, K.M.!

    Using subtext well can be tricky, like folding Tamagahane steel into a sword. You need to get just the right balance of carbon or the blade won’t work the way you want it. Just the right amount of hinting—enough to alert the reader that there lies more beneath the surface—without approaching the realm of flashing neon arrows that say, “Subtext here!”

    Bury your subtext too deep and the reader might miss it. Draw too much attention to it and the reader might roll their eyes.

    The trick is to get it just right. You know it when you do it well, like a puzzle piece you’ve placed perfectly. You can’t see the seam anymore, but you know it’s there . . . and you’re darned proud of hiding it.

  6. The common thread in every book I love is an incredible hero who is willing to sacrifice his own needs and comfort to protect the woman he’s falling in love with. (I read mostly romance, and write romance) He also sacrifices to protect the other people in his life he cares about.

    As long as I get this kind of hero, I’m happy. Very happy. It’s also the kind of hero I write.

  7. So, if a beta reader says they were surprised by an important point — like, the climax — then maybe more telegraphing along the way would be a good idea?

    I admit, I’m kind of floundering here. Will definitely go back to read your post on dialogue

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. We want to surprise readers, but not because we failed to properly foreshadow. More on that here: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/04/how-to-use-foreshadowing.html

      • Brian Cartwright says:

        How much different is this from foreshadowing? We can hint at, or just scratch the surface, of an unexplored area. Is this something that will be revealed later, or just left for the reader to fill in at the end of the story.

        In my WIP I have hinted at the protagonist’s girlfriend’s previous experiences with boys. After a couple of crumbs, I decided to leave it unanswered. He never asks, she never tells, and the readers can speculate.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Sounds like your example is a good one. Although foreshadowing plays a big role, it *is* ultimately different to the point that foreshadowing will need to be paid off and explained later in the book. Subtextual hints will be raised early – and often partially fulfilled, while still leaving a little room for the readers to play in.

  8. Nice blog.

    I fear, in my own writing, losing the balance between the over subtly vs. the obvious subtext–how do you know you have the right balance; especially, as you know what the subtext is? It can seem very obvious to the author.

    Additionally, how much do you feel symbolism plays in the story and the subtext?

    Just discovered your blog and I’m very excited start reading. It is like finding a new author you love and then realizing they have twenty books already published!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Symbolism can be a HUGE boon in creating subtext. Very often, the best subtext will be a manifestation that’s almost as subconscious for the writer as for the reader. That doesn’t mean we can’t consciously claim it, but it will often result without our necessarily intending it to. As for balancing it, there’s no hard-and-fast guideline. It will always depend on the story. Beta readers are very helpful in offering objective opinions on where we need to add or subtract context.

  9. This is a huge breakthrough K!! I can’t wait to see to see how this affects both our writing! Xo ~ Meg

  10. This is why when I develop a story, I know what happens beyond the words on the page. If the MC meets one character here, and then again there, what has that character done in between? Even if it doesn’t matter, I still know. If it does matter, you don’t tell the reader outright, you hide it in – as you say – subtext.

    You can tell pages worth of content that exist surrounding a non-POV character with a single – obviously and intentionally – omitted statement. You can tell a person’s past by not telling it at all. You can tell the present, even elsewhere, with subtext. You can even predict the future. You can be right, you can be wrong.

    Subtext is to language as the subconscious is to thought.

    I love this post of yours, Katie. Open the mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great way to approach a story. It’s a much bigger view than what we’re giving the readers. This is also the best way I know to make sure the supporting characters’ motives and actions are plausible. What are they doing when they’re not with the protag?

  11. You’re talking about the stories that good fandoms are made out of, and leaving room for headcanons. I love it.

  12. I just saw a move called ‘The Homesman’ and was wondering why I was still thinking about the plot and characters the next day. The plot moved slow and steady with no bang in the end. Yes resolution and very thought provoking. Is subtext for books the same as Symbolism in movies? Was it great Character building? If you get a chance please see the movie and let me know…because Im thinking it was brilliant at show don’t tell.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I saw the trailer, and it looked interesting! Have yet to see the movie though. Symbolism and subtext are two distinct entities, but they have a lot in common. If you’re still thinking about it all this time after watching it, then it’s almost certain its subtext was good.

    • Brian Cartwright says:

      Katie can/will correct me if I’m wrong, but in my example of subtext, I wrote in my story where the protagonist’s mother warns him of getting caught up non-platonic relationship with the girl by saying “this spring, she was caught with…an older boy, doing things they weren’t supposed to.” I chose to imply that mom knew the identity of the “older boy” but for unstated reasons reconsidered identifying him. I thought it would be more fun to never answer the question, letting the readers imagine who it might have been, and thus how they perceive the girl’s character.

      Truth is, the protagonist has already been secretly having a physical relationship with the girl. He’s also already been shown to be an obsessive sports fan who’s tended to cling to previous, short-lived, relationships. One day (in a later chapter, not yet written) they are both at a social gathering when he leaves the rest to listen to a baseball game on the radio. It’s the last day of the season, win and they’re in, which his team hasn’t done in three years. She finds her boyfriend, engages him about how life had gone on when his team didn’t reach the playoffs in past years. In each season that followed he was still able to deeply enjoy the moment of each game, even if ultimately he was disappointed with their elimination, as his team can’t win the World Series every year. So he better get his butt back to the party right now! In that scene I use how he relates to his favorite sports team as a symbol for their break up a few months later. The comments she made, concerning his personality, also apply to how he relates to romantic and sexual relationships.

  13. Lorna G. Poston says:

    I’m pretty stingy with my five-star reviews too.

    Is your plant okay? I’m worried about him. 😉

  14. I love all the talk about subtext, but I went back to Kate’s original question – what do all my most favorite books have in common? And I realized that from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series to Angela’s Ashes, all of my favorite books showed my MC on a journey, whether physical or emotional, or both, that involved a lot of people along the way, but that in the end, they were ultimately on their own to resolve it, in whatever way it gets resolved.

    So I was not surprised that this is how my WIP is outlined. I thought of other books, just to make sure it wasn’t just that ALL books were like this, but there were plenty I could think of that were not like this (Chronicles of Narnia, LOTR – wait, those are amongst my faves, too, but no, not THE faves) so it is a specific thing, and it is very interesting to figure this out.

    Now if I can only write this book with that in mind, AND with good subtext, I’ll be sitting pretty. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesome! The common factor among any individual’s favorite stories is likely to be very different from person to person. Always fascinating to see what punches somebody else’s buttons!

    • Brian Cartwright says:

      I was talking to my wife about last week’s episode of “Elementary” (and it’s probably a good one if you can end up discussing it later.)

      The weekly crimes to be solved are just a vehicle to show the character growth of the protagonist, Sherlock Holmes in a modern setting. He’s not a likeable person as he rarely cares about other people’s feelings, but we can take joy as he slowly learns to be more human.

      Gregory House and Patrick Jayne are two other television characters based on the historic Holmes, and they also have the trait if caring more about the job at hand than what people think of them. House reveled in mocking others, believing that his great medical skills were invaluable and thus made him immune to retribution.

      Elementary’s Holmes is sympathetic to other people, but often he’s oblivious to the fallout of his actions as he’s so focused on his tasks at hand. Over the course of the show Watson, who was originally his sober counselor to help him get over drug addiction, has tried to make him more aware of the people around him and why their feelings matter.

      This past week his protege Kitty came face to face with her rapist from several years before in England. Instead of insisting she not harm the man, Holmes tells her to do what she wants, but to remember that a few months before she had saved Holmes himself from a bad situation. In a scene that where in most shows, we would expect him to have kissed her, Holmes did an abrupt 180 and strolled away. We were then shown a flash back to six months prior, when Kitty became frustrated with learning to be a detective and quit. When she returned a week later to apologize, the audience found Holmes sitting in a chair weeping when she knocked at the door. Instead of feeling out of character, it showed me how deep inside he keeps his emotions bottled up, but he can’t always deny them. Irene Adler’s apparent murder a few years earlier had led Holmes to drug abuse , and now we are left to wonder how Kitty’s departure might work at tearing him apart again.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Sounds like a good episode! I’ve never been a big fan of whodunits. I only watch them for the characters, and, even then, I don’t watch too many of them because I get frustrated with the mystery getting in the way of the character development. :p But I’ve always liked Johnny Lee Miller. I may have to check that one out one of these days.

        • Brian Cartwright says:

          The ‘mystery’ of the week does not get in the way. The focus of the show, and what makes me like it so much, is the interaction and growth of the characters as they work together, sometimes well, other times not.

          AS few years ago I started listening to Ron Moore’s podcast of how he produced ‘Battlestar Galactica’, and now following your material, has given me a new way to watch film!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I keep hearing so many good things about Battlestar Galactica. It’s been on my list for a while.

  15. Brian Cartwright says:

    It’s only been ten years!

  16. Good day, I have a question to ask. What if my stories are based on mysteries that are never revealed? For example, one story begins when the hero wakes up and finds himself trapped in an empty underground cave, and he also doesn’t remember who he is. Hovewer, the story never actually explains these mysteries, and even I don’t know the hero’s identity or how he got there. In another story, the hero is chased by a group of villains, but their motives are never stated and the reader has no choice but to guess.
    The truth is that I simply love unexplained mysteries. When a secret is revealed, even if it happens at the very end of a story, I lose interest forever, while a never-ending stream of unexplained secrets keeps me hooked. I found that if a story never bothers to explain what’s going on, it actually makes that story MORE interesting, not less (except when it’s some sort of crazy drug-influenced drivel). This is one of the reasons why I loved the Lord of the Rings movies. So many unanswered questions there!
    However, it appears that not everybody thinks the same way. It’s often said that every written story has to reveal at least some of it’s secrets at the end, so that readers won’t feel cheated. But I myself feel cheated when the story DOES reveal the main mystery – because I’m reading for the mystery itself and not for it’s explanation (which ruins it).
    So what should I do with my writing? Every time I come up with an explanation for my story’s main mystery, I lose all motivation to write it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A couple thoughts…

      1. I always tell people to write as if they were a member of their own audience. Write the kind of stories *you* lie.

      2. Run it by some beta readers. If you get consistent frustration with the lack of reveals, you might want to reconsider at least a few of them.

      3. It’s true that, in general, we’re going to want to at least partially answer the main questions in any story. But the how and the when always depend on the specific story. If you’re story isn’t *about* the character’s identity or the bad guys’ motives, then it’s possible you can get away without ever addressing them.

      • Thanks. My stories are mostly about the characters’ inner journeys and problem-solving skills. The nature of the obstacles they face is not at all important, so I feel it’s much more effective to simply hide it.

  17. I love good sub-text. One of my writing professors often said the best writing involves saying it without saying it. He also mentioned how Hemingway compared his writing to an iceberg. The words on the page were the visible tip of the iceberg, but the rest of the story, the unwritten part, was all of the iceberg that remained underwater. I try to keep this in mind when I write, but the danger in trying to leave something unsaid is that sometimes you end up leaving a hole in the story.

  18. I read your post about prologues (http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/find-out-if-your-prologue-is-destroying-your-storys-subtext/) today but my comment pertains more to subtext so I thought I would post it here.

    I am a beginning writer of MG sci/fi and paranormal fantasy. I am in a critique group. My thing is that I get lots of feedback about basically adding sequel. In the sense they want to know what the MC is thinking/feeling. I think I have trouble doing this and maintaining the subtext. How do you balance subtext and feelings/thoughts?

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question. The first thing to realize is that sequel scenes, in which we show our characters’ reactions to the events in the scenes themselves, are *crucial.* In some respects, sequels are even more important than the scenes. They create the verisimilitude of thinking/reacting human beings. They create the cyclical link that allows us to move into the *next* scene. And they’re where the vast majority of character development takes place. So we gotta have them.

      And you’re right: this is where subtext gets tricky. The key is leaving loose ends. Be completely honest and open about your character’s thoughts and his process in working through his reactions. So no need to cover that up. But don’t make his reactions easy or pat. Don’t let him completely understand his own motivations. His reactions should all be stepping stones in his journey toward his ultimate revelation of himself at the end of his character arc. As such, each of these sequel scenes becomes a mini-discovery, a new clue leading to the larger picture, which is where the bulk of the subtext will be found.

      • This (“show our characters’ reactions to the events in the scenes themselves”) is even more important when the MC and the protagonist are not one and the same: we show the MC’s reaction to the protagonist’s actions. Each such reaction is one step in the MC’s journey of growth, no?

  19. When I was trying to create a (fanfic) backstory for a well-known sci-fi/fantasy story that had a lot of loose ends, I was proud of the way I was able to put the puzzle pieces together. Then I looked into publishing, and I discovered that the job of an author is NOT to solve puzzles but to create them. Solving puzzles is the reader’s job. So I would attach to your thoughts, if I could, the words “create a puzzle.”

    (I also discovered that you can’t publish fanfic.)

  20. When the MC is not the protagonist, are you more curious about the MC’s “pregnant blanks” or about the protagonist’s “pregnant blanks” ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ideally, both. But in these types of stories, it’s usually the protagonist who presents more blanks.

  21. Hannah Killian says:

    Is this why I can’t stop thinking up a backstory for Hans from Frozen? “Three of my brothers pretended I was invisble-literally-for two years.” Seriously, I can’t stop thinking of reasons why his brothers did that. And what about the other nine? What about their parents? Why do I even want to know?

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