Tag Archives: novel

Subtext, Part 1: What is Subtext?

Subtext is one of the strongest, most powerful narrative tools a storyteller has in their arsenal.

That’s awesome! But what exactly is subtext?

The short answer: Information that is communicated without coming out and directly saying it.

The very short answer: What ISN’T said.

What does that mean?

Great question. Big, complicated answer.

To answer that question thoroughly, we will start by grazing the surface of subtext with Part 1 in our article series before proceeding to a deep dive into the subject. Part 2 will explore what subtext is, how it functions, and the many forms in which it can be used in significantly greater depth.

Back to the question at hand:

What is Subtext?

Subtext is many things, and nailing down a helpful description in a single phrase always falls short. The trickiness lies in the fact that subtext isn’t directly written, stated or spoken. It is the ever present invisible context inhabiting the shell we call text—that is, the underlying story beneath the outer story crust.

Like any informational source, story consists of two layers: Text and Subtext. In a conversation between two people, text represents the words each participant says to the other while subtext includes everything they aren’t saying. That doesn’t mean subtext includes everything they could possibly or potentially say in that situation, but rather the meaning behind the strategy and delivery of the text.

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Where Subtext falls in the layers of storytelling.

 

If Person A asks Person B, “Did you drive today?” The text of Person A’s question is obvious—exactly what (s)he came out and said. However, the subtext—what Person A didn’t say—is far richer and meaningful: Do I have to give you a ride today? The tone of Person A’s voice, the emotional backing and the context in which the question was asked add subtext as well. So while the text may be a simple question, the subtext alters the meaning depending on whether it was asked with a groan or with the intent of helping out a friend in need.

What Does Subtext Do?

The short answer: Subtext creates meaning.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext represents the emotional core of your story. Not restricted by genre, medium or storyteller, subtext is the hidden power that gives the text its emotional and thematic punch. Depth and nuance are almost entirely contained in this layer of story.

A story cannot succeed without effective subtext because the text itself cannot adequately communicate meaning in a way that feels fulfilling or satisfying. The audience will notice when subtext is missing—whether they are consciously aware of it or not—because the story will feel hollow, motivations poorly formed, and characters lacking in dimension.

If Subtext is so Important, Why Do I Need Surface Text?

The short answer: You need both. Always.

The not-as-short answer:

Surface text acts as a simple vehicle to put the subtext into a context that makes it tangible, specific, and easy to understand. By itself, subtext comes across as abstract and vague. Text without subtext feels superficial and forgettable. Therefore, every story needs both subtext and text because the story will feel incomplete with only one or the other.

To review:

  • Surface text tells us what happens, not what it means.
  • Subtext tells us what it means, not what happens.
  • Text + Subtext tells us what happens and what those events mean.

How Do I Create Subtext?

The short answer: By talking around the obvious.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext arises through restraint from revealing the mystery and explaining all, creating implication of the greater struggle that lies beneath the surface—conflict, the heart and soul of story. Basically, by not using direct exposition (text). Don’t say what you mean; say all the things that approach the subject indirectly without giving away the whole story. Think about the exposition as an aerial view of the whole forest but the audience only gets to see the trees up close at ground level. Subtext provides clues to solving the mystery without directly saying, “The butler did it.” The audience will absorb the evidence and come to that conclusion themselves, but in a way that creates a more cathartic experience because they were actively involved in the emotional journey and not just a passive participant.

A few ways to approach subtext:

  • If a character wants something in a scene, don’t let them say so. Have them employ different tactics to approach the subject indirectly without identifying the want directly.
  • If a character feels an emotion, don’t let them say exactly who they feel. Have them express or explore other secondary emotions or outward effects without dialing in on the root cause.
  • If a setting or environment evokes a certain ambiance, don’t say so. Describe it in terms of sensations, feelings, emotions and similarities without pigeonholing it with over-simplified description like “creepy” or “romantic.”

What’s Next?

We’ve only just started talking about subtext here in Part 1 of our article series. Stay tuned for Part 2: Text vs Subtext.

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STORY TITLES, PART 3: Titles In Practice

After two articles discussing the theory behind what makes story titles great, let’s break down some real-life story titles and see what works and what doesn’t.

First, a quick refresher:

When you look at a story title (including the examples), ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the title convey the genre and tone?
  2. Does the title indicate a concept, central idea and/or theme?
  3. Does the title suggest a certain type of audience?
  4. Does the title imply the focus of the storytelling?

Sadly, not every title will hit all four of these points. However, if you can tweak your own until each answer becomes a resounding YES, then you may just have one stellar title under your belt.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at…

TITLES THAT KILL

Once in awhile you run across a story title that sticks to the wall so well, it’s almost impossible to peel it off! These titles hit all four points, teasing the audience with what the story has to offer and then paying off the tease in spades. Some of these even connect the concept and theme with a great double entendre.

Let’s start with a simple one:

MONSTER IN LAW

Although not the greatest movie ever made, the title is fantastic. The title is a play on words, as is common for comedy movies (think LEGALLY BLONDE), giving us the genre and tone right up front. What is the concept? A mother-in-law who is a proverbial monster. Duh! Audience? Directed toward adults who can relate to having in-laws. The focus is clearly on the relationship with the mother-in-law. And to top off the whole sundae with a nice fat cherry is the double entendre to give the title that extra bit of punch.

Another simple one, also a movie:

LOVE ACTUALLY

GENRE/TONE: Romance (could it be anything else?)
CONCEPT, ETC: Literally “love, actually” in its many forms and manifestations.
AUDIENCE: Females and romantics. If it was targeting males, the title might look like LOVE GUN or TO LOVE A WOMAN, etc.
FOCUS: A group of characters experiencing “love, actually.”

What about TV? Got you covered:

GREY’S ANATOMY

Another play on words, this time referencing the famous anatomy textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY.

GENRE/TONE: A serious medical show.
CONCEPT, ETC: A medical show about a med student named Dr. Grey.
AUDIENCE: Medical show fans with a female bias (e.g, ER for women).
FOCUS: Dr. Grey as the protagonist.

Another, albeit older, TV show:

FRIENDS

An older reference, but the title couldn’t be better.

GENRE/TONE: Light, relatable.
CONCEPT, ETC: The lives of a group of friends.
AUDIENCE: Age groups with tight circles of friends (think teenagers to young adult).
FOCUS: The group of friends.

How about something more poetic, in this case a book:

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

GENRE/TONE: Intellectual drama.
CONCEPT, ETC: Although we don’t know what “Flowers for Algernon” means before diving into the book, we come to understand the great significance this simple idea conveys. The protagonist watches a mouse named Algernon lose its brain functions and, knowing he will face the same end, the protagonist mourns for both the mouse and his own loss before his awareness wanes. His final wishes is to have flowers placed on Algernon’s grave.
AUDIENCE: A more sophisticated audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the material.
FOCUS: The protagonist, for whom Algernon is a long-term foreshadowing device.

And if you feel like cheating…

BATMAN, SPIDERMAN, SUPERMAN, etc.

Superhero stories are kind of a cheat because they practically name themselves. A superhero story is almost always named after the superhero or superhero group:

GENRE/TONE: Superhero (usually action/adventure)
CONCEPT, ETC.: A Superhero with these powers.
AUDIENCE: Audiences who like superheroes.
FOCUS: On that superhero.

Easy, right?

TITLES THAT DON’T (FAMOUS MISSES)

Before we proceed into more controversial territory, it’s vital to understand two points:

  1. A successful story doesn’t necessarily mean a good title.
  2. A successful title doesn’t necessarily mean a good story.

Even some of the most ubiquitously popular books and films from the past were given less than spectacular titles. In fact, some of them are pretty bad, especially for two of biggest and most successful story franchises of all time: LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.

Before you scream from the rooftops that I’m a lunatic, take a deep breath and read on. (For the record, these are my personal two favorite stories throughout all space and time, so I’m not as biased as you might think!)

STAR WARS (film, 1977)

This is a great example because not only is the title generic and cheesy, it doesn’t tell us much about the story other than there is combat in space. Is that the concept? Not really. Yes, the target audience is fairly generalized with an obvious bias toward sci-fi fans, but who is the focus of the story? We don’t know. Thankfully, the film was later (and rightfully) re-titled as A NEW HOPE. Still not a killer title, but better than the original.

Compare to…

HUNGER GAMES (book & film, 2008)

Suggesting intensity and action, the concept is also in the title, aimed at a slightly younger, mostly generalized audience with a focus is on what happens during each annual Hunger Games.

LORD OF THE RINGS (books & films, 1954+)

This is an interesting example because it illustrates so much. J.R.R Tolkien himself wanted to publish the trilogy in one big volume, but with accurate (if not plain) titles for each section: THE FIRST JOURNEY, THE RING SETS OUT, THE JOURNEY OF THE NINE COMPANIONS or THE RING GOES SOUTH, and THE WAR OF THE RING. But the editor intervened, splitting the book into three parts to form the trilogy we know today, and giving us these oddly vague titles: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING.

“Fellowship” accurately describes the group of individuals centered around smuggling the One Ring into Mordor, so that hits on concept and focus, possibly audience but not necessarily genre. Then we get to the Two Towers, which is a bit odd since the story is not actually about those two locations, nor are the two specific towers ever made clear since there are actually four towers mentioned in the book: Barad-dur, and Cirith Ungol, Isengard, and Minas Tirith. Then “Return” misses the mark by painting the wrong focus, indicating the book is about Aragorn and his rise to the kingship. Christian overtones aside, compare RETURN OF THE KING to any number of much better titles: THE WAR OF THE RING, THE LAST BATTLE, FRODO BAGGINS AND THE JOURNEY TO MT. DOOM. Each gives the final installment of the story a different flavor with a far more accurate indication of story focus, tone, and genre.

The series title, LORD OF THE RINGS, suggests the main antagonist, Sauron, is the storytelling focus for the entire saga. This is not the case. Something like THE ONE RING would be far more accurate, since the story does indeed follow the characters, factions, and plots surrounding this central device.

Compare to…

HARRY POTTER (books & films, 1997)

Perhaps better than any other famous franchise, the titles of the HARRY POTTER installments tell us right up front we are in for adventure and mystery, what the concept is, where the storytelling focus is, and that there is a general target audience with a bias toward younger ages. While they may not be the most creative titles ever invented, they do the job spectacularly well.

IN CONCLUSION…

This wraps our 3-part series on titles for now. In Part 1, we talked about what a story title is, how it works, and where it comes from. Then, in Part 2 we went over some helpful tips to nail your story title. Now that we’ve reviewed some famous titles that hit the mark and some that don’t, it’s time to say goodbye to story titles for awhile and move onto another subject.

Still need help? Look no further! Get in touch and let’s work it out together.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

Top 10 Lit Books No One Reads (But Everyone Should)

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

1ataleoftwocities

The first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “Dickens” is “boring.” Wrong. A Tale of Two Cities is anything but. Beginning with one of the most famous story openings of all time, Dickens takes us through a visually stunning web of historical stories taking place during the bloodiest part of the French Revolution. Themes, imagery, and motifs are so thickly distributed in the novel an entire book series could be dedicated to their analysis. But don’t just take my word for it – “Cities” is one of the bestselling novels of all time, and for good reason!

2. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane2redbadgeofcourage

An early war novel depicting life in the American Civil War by Stephen Crane. The Red Badge of Courage follows the emotional journey of a young man through realistic action, powerful themes and heavy symbolism in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. It’s a short book, so if you haven’t read it, maybe it’s time you did.

3. Dracula by Bram Stoker3dracula

Not only is it the definitive vampire novel that inspired big-time franchises such as Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire) and Twilight, it’s also a patient, haunting tale of evil reawakened. Read this and you’ll understand why Bram Stoker‘s Dracula stands the test of the time and remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written.

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte4janeeyre

While many consider the classic Jane Eyre to be an early piece of chick lit, it is anything but. Introspective, emotionally robust and progressively feminist, Bronte’s gothic tale is a coming-of-age story featuring a strong-willed woman who survives the brutality of the age to achieve her desires on her own terms. Themes of atonement, forgiveness, and success through independence and morality lend this classic some serious gravitas as a work of timeless art.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck5ofmiceandmen

A novella about two migrant workers who dream of greater things, only to be thwarted by their own flaws, social and economic status. Steinbeck‘s unflinching honesty about the unchangeable fate of those destined to fail because of their own disadvantages paints a harsh picture, but an emotional effective one concerning certain aspects of human nature. The ending is sure to make you wring your hands out of frustrated futility but Of Mice and Men is absolutely worth a read if you’re serious about literature.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell6nineteeneightyfour1984

1984” meticulously explores the future of communism, censorship, privacy, and thought control through the eyes of man who believes himself one step ahead of the government. More than anything, Orwell’s novel is a stunning thought experiment warning us about the fate of society without freedom of speech. If you love plots that feature plans within plans, intrigue, and thoughtful social commentary then pick up George’s book. Who knows? It might be your new favorite book.

7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding7lordoftheflies

Brutality and humanity collide in this survival tale about a group of normal school boys stranded on an island. Together they build a new society which brings out dormant primitive instincts and ultimately plays out as an embodiment of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. Individuality and mob mentality clash in this provocative thought experiment in novel form. William Golding‘s Lord of the Flies will haunt you with it’s accurate depiction of unrestrained primal human instincts descending into violence and chaos.

8. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas8thethreemusketeers

Everyone’s heard of them, but have you actually read the book? Unlike the realism or religious-themed works set in the same time period, Dumas’s novel is pure adventure, a story in which boys will be boys and have a hell of lot of fun doing it. The Three Musketeers is no stuffy piece of dense literature; it’s a fun romp from beginning to end. It only takes a few pages to understand why Dumas’s book inspired so much timeless acclaim.

9. Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils9camille

Written by Alexandre Dumas’s son, Camille explores a love affair between a gentleman and high class prostitute in a way that makes the book impossible to put down through a clever use of cliff hangers at the end of nearly every chapter. The novel takes us through a man’s descent into uncontrollable obsession with a woman willing to give up her glamorous life for him, only to be thwarted by the meddling of family over worries about damage to their reputation. Also known as La Dame aux Camélias or “The Lady of the Camellias.”

10. (TIE) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee AND Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote10a-tokillamockingbird

A classic which highlights culture and race in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird stands up for human rights and equality at a time where doing so could get you killed. Capote’s book takes us through a more laid-back exploration of an even more rural, isolated area of the Gothic South.10b-othervoicesotherrooms

These books are paired together for a reason. Both Mockingbird and Other Voices, Other Rooms deal with children coming-of-age through the loss of innocence. Not only were they written by real-life best friends Harper Lee and Truman Capote, both are also featured as major supporting cast members in each other’s novels.

 

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Rights to the book covers used in this article are not owned or licensed by Story Science. They are simply used as an expedient means for readers to acquire inexpensive copies of these books if so desired. This is not a sales pitch on behalf of anyone or any party. These books are truly amazing in their own right, regardless of version, publisher, or book cover.

Starship Troopers, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein

A nearly forgotten military sci-fi classic by author Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers pushes science fiction beyond the commonplace genre novel toward the realm of literary fiction and its penchant for universal truth. By setting the story in a futuristic fictional setting, the author disassociates the book with any specific real-world war, allowing him to focus on a thorough examination of theme and moral philosophy.

Part science fiction novel, part moral essay, Starship Troopers devotes considerable time to philosophizing about the role of the soldier, the military, and the obligations of individuals in a collective society, especially to their fellow man. Drawing from the author’s own experience in the Armed Forces, Heinlein uses his well thought-out universe to constructively criticize the faults of American society through the eyes of a militaristic fascist one.

front book cover for science fiction novel Starship Troopers written by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein

The novel’s thematic backbone creates a solid skeleton through which to elegantly explore the psychology of the soldier, specifically the infantryman, as he graduates through the various phases of his career from pre-enlisted civilian through mature officer. Heinlein also explores adjacent branches of this theme tree, including the developing relationship between master and student, commander and enlisted man, and father and son. With each new step toward maturity the protagonist sees the military machine with greater discernment and understanding (the military organization being a thematic substitute for ‘the world’ because in this case the military is the protagonist’s world).

Despite being published in 1959, Starship Troopers provides the experience of reading a novel written 10 or 20 years later than its actual publication date. Unfortunately, the dated dialogue continually bursts this illusion, ever reminding us that the novel was written in the 1950s. An over-use of unnecessary dialogue hedges such as “Uh” and “Umm” at the beginning of character responses slows the pace of many scenes and takes the reader out of the world of the story.

Readers expecting heart pumping action and thrilling space battles will be sorely disappointed in Starship Troopers. Heinlein deliberately steers clear of these tropes by means of the anti-“war genre” (e.g., anti-genre) to maintain focus on his themes and the insightful exposure of a combat soldier’s psychological journey. Despite the agedness of the book, many of his philosophical ideas remain universally valid to this day.

Starship Troopers was adapted for the big screen in 1997 by writer Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner

Book cover for As I Lay Dying, a literary novel by William Faulkner, on Minimalist Reviews.By James Gilmore

As I Lay Dying examines the uncensored inner monologue of family members experiencing deep grief in what is more aptly titled a work of narrative poetry than literary fiction. Seemingly written in a single fever-pitch binge, Faulkner’s poignant discourse and extensive use of symbolism comes to the reader through the enigmatic filter of the inner mind.

As I Lay Dying warrants close study and an open mind. It is not for everyone.

Rating:  4 / 5

1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint

By James Gilmore

Eric Flint’s 1632 is an alternative history science fiction novel about a small town in present day West Virginia that is suddenly transported back in time to Germany during the devastating Thirty Years’ War in the year 1632.  At its heart, 1632 is a romantic view of classic American ideals clashing with and conquering those of the oppressed, war-torn 17th century continental Europe, pushing normal small town folk into extraordinary circumstances.

Book cover for 1632, an alternative history novel by Eric Flint, on Minimalist Reviews.

Eric Flint executes the unusual and exceptionally difficult premise with marvelous ease and methodical reasoning, exploring the promise of the premise with detailed thoroughness.  Despite reviews which misleadingly describe the book as “action packed”  1632 is mostly a relationship-oriented piece with a few periods of intense action counterpointed against extended laconic sections of blossoming romance.

The plentiful characters populating the novel surprise the reader with their variance, color, and very human likeability, which makes the exploration their relationships a pleasure, even if the story does get bogged down in a disproportionate amount of romance during the second act.  The large cast prevents great depth in character development.  Regardless, it’s obvious to the reader that Flint is an author who genuinely loves his characters.

One of the greatest shortcomings of 1632 is its failure to live up to the high stakes generated by the premise.  Main characters have things pretty easy and rarely (if ever) actually lose anything of value, while any obstacles that do arise are circumvented without great difficulty.  Greater challenges and higher stakes conflict are needed in a world where innumerable dangers lurk in the shadows.  Unfortunately, the dangers threaten but seldom actually emerge from the periphery.

Eric Flint’s 1632 may be an acquired taste for most, but don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you are in the mood for something new, unique and quasi-historical.

Rating:  3.5 / 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mystery thriller novel by Stieg Larsson (“Quickie” Review)

By James Gilmore

Book cover for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mystery thriller novel by Stieg Larsson, on Minimalist Reviews.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is an altogether pleasurable and smooth read, even in spite of the frequent, overly burdensome exposition and a vast proliferation of details almost too numerous for the reader to continually to keep in mind, requiring an extra dosage of concentration while reading.

As for the character of Lisbeth Salander, she is one of the most fascinating, inescapably magnetic characters in modern fiction, a curiosity or enigma that sucks us into slavering to learn more about her.

The author Stieg Larsson passed away on November 9, 2004.

Rating:  4 / 5