In Part 1 of our article series on subtext we began a thorough introduction to the subject. Here in Part 2 we are going to dive into greater depth on how subtext functions in storytelling. As for the specific types of subtext (and there are many), we will get to that in a future article.
What does subtext actually do?
The short answer: Subtext enhances storytelling by tapping into the subconscious to make the story more memorable and more impactful. It applies to every genre and every medium.
The really short answer: Subtext helps tell a better story.
But how, exactly?
Subtext Sets Tone, Atmosphere & Mood
At its most basic level, subtext communicates the overall feel of the story. This can be a subtle undertone, a collection of background mood elements, or the setting of the story itself.
For example’s sake, let’s take the following sentence, devoid of subtext:
Hawker walked through the street that night.
Now let’s add a bit of subtext in the form of mood:
Hawker pushed through the murky night, parting the dense fog like a shadow in a snow drift.
Quite a difference, isn’t there?
Take it a step further by throwing in a larger atmosphere element that recurs throughout the story. Maybe everyone Hawker passes on the streets walks briskly, arms tucked, closed off from communication, not stopping when they bump into him.
Without having to directly tell the audience anything, the added subtext communicates Hawker’s isolation and introspective defensiveness, putting him into a world where every individual must fend for oneself.
For a few real-world examples, check out:
TV: Twin Peaks
LIT: The Red Badge of Courage
FILM: Body Heat
Subtext Illustrates Story, Reduces Exposition
You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” The idea here is to aim for illustrating story through the playing-out of conflict, desires, obstacles and goal-seeking rather than telling the audience what happens through direct exposition. Here’s where subtext comes in handy. Subtext is all about showing because it doesn’t allow you to explain things outright (“on-the-nose,” or literally as they are).
Subtext illustrates story by communicating between the lines. It’s as simple as that. Much of the time, this kind of subtext naturally arises during the storytelling process through the choices our characters make. The selflessness or selfishness of the decision in that situation expresses something about their character, and so long as the narrative doesn’t come right out and say “this is what that choice means for this character,” then the subtext happens all on its own.
This is where the superhero genre really excels: The protagonist is repeatedly put into situations where (s)he must choose between a selfish, gratifying act or a selfless, self-harming act. Subtext comes into play when the hero makes that key decision. We (the audience) know that if the hero makes a selfish choice that (s)he will be personally rewarded, but because of ignoble cowardice and/or weakness. Likewise, we implicitly know that the hero’s selfless act will come with great struggle and personal pain, and will win our admiration for doing the right thing. All of that from a choice—and we don’t even have to spell it out for the audience. They’ll get it. Audiences are smart.
Want to see this in action? Try:
TV: The Office
FILM: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2
LIT: Of Mice and Men
Subtext Creates Emotional Impact
As we’ve mentioned previously, subtext communicates below the textual level, nesting itself in the pregnant quiet space beneath the surface message to create immediacy, greater meaning and emotion than would otherwise be possible. If you’ve ever seen a sitcom, then yes, you’ve seen this aspect of subtext in action.
Imagine a TV show conversation between Rock and Stone. Rock has been in love with Stone for 10 years. We’ve been following Rock and Stone’s comical near-love connection mishaps for 5 seasons now. They’ve never actually gotten together but both characters have repeatedly demonstrated their secret love and willingness to sacrifice all for each other since episode one. During the season 5 finale, Rock accidentally reveals those feelings for Stone in public while accepting an award. Embarrassed, Rock flees to hide beneath a tree. Having heard the flub, Stone finds Rock and confesses the same feelings. That fuzzy, tingly, heart-swelling moment that accompanies their first kiss? That’s right. From subtext.
The text of the moment isn’t all that interesting by itself: Stone finds Rock beneath the tree, confesses feelings and they kiss. How many times have we heard a story like that? What lends this particular situation the gravity and emotional impact is the fact that in that scene between Rock and Stone, we carry the subconscious build-up of all past 5 seasons of unrequited love. The power of everything that led to this huge payoff is the subtext. As the audience, we don’t have to be reminded of the past 5 seasons because we’ve already experienced it, so by not calling attention to that directly, we’ve avoided blocky exposition to let the subtext ride out the moment.
Additional great examples:
LIT: Age of Innocence
FILM: Lord of the Rings trilogy
Subtext Adds Depth by Conveying a Greater Message
Here’s where subtext gets storytellers really excited. When your story is attempting to convey a theme, moral, or greater commentary, subtext is the most effective means to do so. Beginning storytellers tend to go straight to soapboxing—beating the idea over the audience’s head through direct exposition. This preachy/didactic approach rarely sticks with the audience for long, and can even turn them off from future connection with the story if it rubs them the wrong away. The more proper—and challenging—way to communicate higher messaging is through skillful implementation of subtext.
Returning to the idea of showing, not telling, the subtext of greater messaging emerges not in one particular moment or scene, but over the course of the longer story as the various arguments associated with that message are played out through the plot. In a high-level sense, we can call this subtextual messaging theme, but it also extends to motif, religious/political messaging, morals, commentary or criticism, warnings, thought experiments and what-if scenarios as well. The means by which subtext illustrates this greater messaging is by showing how that main idea (and its subsidiary ideas) play out through goal-seeking, obstacles and conflict, rather than coming out and telling the audience exactly what it’s doing. After all, would you rather have someone explain a painting to you or see it for yourself?
Satirical TV shows like Family Guy or South Park make use of subtext to lampoon political and religious ideas on a regular basis by putting characters into the situation they wish to comment on, and then using humor to express the desired opinion or viewpoint of the show as the situation plays out during the episode. George Orwell’s famous novels Animal Farm and 1984 both take a more serious approach, using literal situations to illustrate the dangers of communism—without ever directly saying “communism is bad.” In this way, the plot (“text”) tells a compelling story while the subplot simultaneously acts as an invisible force, forming the proverbial iceberg beneath the water and granting the plot its impact and staying-power.
Wan more real-world examples? Check out:
TV: Family Guy
FILM: Harold & Maude
Whew! That is a lot to digest—and there’s more to come! Stay tuned for Part 3: How to Use Subtext, where we will move away from theory and dig into the more practical applications of subtext in storytelling.
In the meantime, share your thoughts and favorite subtext-laden stories with us. We’d love to hear from you!
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