Tag Archives: short film

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.

storylayers_sqx2.jpg
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.

Feeling lost? Story Science is here to help! Contact us right away and we will help you find your way.

Top 10 Storytelling Basics

shorthand list of top 10 storytelling basics everyone needs to know from StorySci.com by James Gilmore

No matter if you are a writer, filmmaker, gamemaster, or stand-up comedian, here are the top 10 most important basic points of storytelling you need to bring your story to life.

1. Include a beginning, middle and end.

This occurs at every level. Just as a trilogy has three parts, so does an individual story have a beginning, middle and end. The same goes each and every scene within that story. How can you tell the difference between a beginning, middle and end? A beginning sets up the story. It’s a blueprint or road map to the rest of the plot. In a good story it won’t be obvious. The middle develops the story from the point of setup to the climax. It plays out the “promise of the premise” and shows how the new status quo introduced at the end of act one affects the world of the story. This takes us to the end. An ending centers around the obligatory confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. It concludes by answering all the questions raised in the story, even if the answers are new questions (aka, cliffhangers).

2. Show, don’t tell.

Instead of telling the audience that something is happening, show them by devoting screen time (or page time) to the illustration of these events. Telling (aka “summary”) is not very interesting in comparison to the audience experiencing the same thing. You don’t need to state what is going on directly. The audience will figure it out for themselves, and in so doing will create a stronger bond with the story than if you simply told the audience that it happened.

3. One word: Conflict.

Conflict is the natural result of one character’s desire intersecting an obstacle. Conflict increases proportionally to the amount that each side pushes back. It drives the story forward and keeps the audience interested. Without it, nothing in the plot would be worth mentioning because story without conflict is not story, it’s summary.

4. Make your protagonist proactive, not reactive.

The more proactive your protagonist is, the more invested in him/her your audience will be. They will want what (s)he wants. A protagonist is proactive when (s)he is the one to take charge and initiate events that advance the plot. The opposite of this is a reactive protagonist who responds to events forced on him/her by the plot. A reactive protagonist will not only make the audience feel like something is missing in your story, but they will fail to build a personal connection with the protagonist as well.

5. Have a central core to your story.

Your story ultimately needs to be about something, and that something is the central through-line (also called the “spine”) around which everything in your story is based, especially the theme. The central core brings unity and order to all the elements of your story. For example, the film Love, Actually has a central spine about love, from which it thematically branches off into different types of love. Or the novel Catch-22 whose central core explores the concept of the same name in various circumstances.

6. Know what your story is about.

It doesn’t matter if your story is based around a character, plot or theme. At some point you will need to know what your story is about—not just at its core, but at every level—in order to weave a story around it. For example, on the surface your story may be about a father-son road trip and the hilarity that ensues, but underneath that veneer it’s actually about father-son relationships and an estranged parent bonding with his troublesome child while also exploring other related thematic material, such as what it means to be male in today’s society.

7. It is better to be simple and clear than complicated and ambiguous.

Simplicity creates clear understanding in the minds of the audience. They won’t view it as overly simplistic if it smoothly and adequately conveys your story. A common mistake storytellers use is to try and tell too much without spending enough “screen time” on each segment. Set aside the big picture to work on the simple steps needed to get there. Want to see this point in action? Pick up a copy of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

8. Say as much as possible with as little as possible.

Convey maximum information using minimal text (story) to do it. Implicit over explicit. This requires the use of subtext: whereas text is what is said, subtext is what is not said. Without subtext, your story will be dull and shallow. Some subtext occurs naturally but very often you have to work at it. For examples, a brother and sister talking about their lives at college but not talking about the recent death of their father colors the scene very differently than if they were just catching up like old friends. It also tells us their emotional state—that they aren’t ready to confront the truth about their father’s death.

9. Get in late, get out early.

Start as late as possible in your scene or story to provide both audience interest and optimal conflict, and then end the scene as soon the conflict has run its course. This doesn’t mean truncating valuable exposition or foregoing a beginning, but it does mean opening where the vital information starts. And once the scene or story has said all there is that needs to be said, get out! Don’t hang around and dawdle or you will be diluting your story’s final punch. For example, the audience doesn’t need to witness an entire 4-hour board meeting. They only need to see the handful of minutes that that count. In short: focus on where the action is happening.

10. Characters, characters, characters.

Even if you have a plot-driven story, your characters are what make a story really shine. A bland or passive protagonist makes for a boring story. Interesting and unique characters are memorable, if not timeless, even when relegated to smaller roles. Go the extra mile to give each character distinction, depth, and history. Consider writing character bios for each member of your cast and see if it gives you further insight into how to portray them.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 3: The Three Types of Compression

compression in storytelling graphic for article by Story Science written by James Gilmore

Finally we have come to part 3 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. If you missed out on the earlier installments, be sure to read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here and Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.

Previously we discussed the different ways in which you can compress elements in your story to make it denser and more efficient. Now we are going to discuss the three main categories of compression and how each applies to storytelling.

Compression falls into three basic categories: (1) Structure (2) Character, and (3) Text, with Structure being the most basic of the three and Text the most involved. Within each category are five points, or ways, in which to utilize compression in that category. Before we get into the bread and butter of the discussions, here is a short sweet summary of the 15 points we will address in this article:

STRUCTURE: Events, plot points, story development.

  1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
  2. Aim high, go far.
  3. Get in late, get out early.
  4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
  5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.

CHARACTER: Cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions.

  1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
  2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
  3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
  4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
  5. Use meaningful character names.

TEXT: The action of the story, including descriptions and visuals.

  1. Remove redundant beats and information.
  2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
  3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
  4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
  5. Cut extraneous details.

STRUCTURE COMPRESSION

Involves events, plot points, and story development. The shorter the piece the more compressed it needs to be.

How do you compress structure?

1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
This creates structural compression by giving you the most amount of time to develop the story instead of having the audience wait around for something to happen. The more aggressive your plotting, the more compressed your structure will be and will help you with points 2-5 (below). Inexperience storytellers often take too long to get to the plot rolling or take too long to reach the point of the story.

2. Aim high, go far.
Use an aggressive structure to develop your plot as far as possible during the course of your story, going from point A to point B with minimal chaff between the two. This allows you to get the most out of your plot by granting you the time to explore your theme and its related subthemes and variations to the fullest extent.

3. Get in late, get out early.
Enter the plot as late as possible with as much exposition and introductory story taking place “off screen” before the first actual moment of your story. Doing this creates greater subtext and grabs the audience’s attention right away instead of boring them with a mountain of setups and exposition. “Get in late, get out early” not only applies to your overall plot but your scenes as well.

4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
Take one event and give it multiple uses. Although one of the most basic methods of compression, young storytellers usually fail to do this. Film is a good place to observe this point in practice. For example: Johnny finds the gun under his wife’s pillow, which tells him she is hiding something from him (the gun at the very least), but also provides Johnny with a murder or self defense weapon in the future, but additionally sets up the situation to make him look like he is his wife’s murderer when he actually had nothing to do with it. Instead of giving each of these developments their own separate events with dedicated “screen time” for each, we can simply combine (compress) them into one single event with multiple uses.

5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.
No matter how cool or interesting a scene may be, if it does not reveal character (preferably someone in the main cast) or advance the plot then it has no place in your story. Ideally, each element will do both, although this is not always possible.

CHARACTER COMPRESSION

Involves cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions. Prose requires the least character compression while film and the stage demand the most.

How do you compress character(s)?

1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
This is accomplished by moving important action and dialogue from minor characters to major ones, or by combining several characters into one or, more often than not, both (the first leading to the second). Unlike long form storytelling, in short form you do not have the time or space to handle a large cast of characters, although you do have more leeway in prose than in film or poetry. In its adaptation from book to film, The Fellowship of the Ring compresses dozens of minor characters into the main cast, making them fuller and more active in the story. Broadway Musicals are especially adept at this type of character compression, as can be seen when comparing Wicked to its original book form and Spamalot to the film on which it is based.

2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
A completely uncompressed character would have everything about him/her explained right away with nothing held back. Not only is this dull but it is also an exposition-heavy block to dump on an audience at the beginning. Instead, hold back information about the character for as long as possible without depriving the audience of plot necessities. This will keep the audience interested and increase their emotional investment and the impact of revelations when they are finally made.

3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
Essentially, “show, don’t tell” (in and of itself a natural form of compression). Instead of saying Character A is an alcoholic, show him drinking. Instead of having another character comment on how much the protagonist cares for others, illustrate what the protagonist does that is caring to others. Don’t tell us the character is good at something, show us through his actions and decisions.

4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
Developing as much about a relationship as possible without having to overtly express it on the page or screen influences how your characters interact with each other. Such implications add both depth and implied history to your characters, making them seem more relatable and whole to the audience. If you haven’t made a habit out of writing character bios, now might be a good time to start because this is where they will come in handy.

5. Use meaningful character names.
Throwaway names add nothing to your story, but names which enhance the meaning of the character’s personality, background, and/or role in the story are worth more than any number of words of imagery. A name can convey a large amount of information about a character without ever having to spell it out. For example, if you were creating a mystery story, which name would convey the most information: (a) Bob Jones (b) Billy the Kid, or (c) Professor Pathfinder?

TEXT COMPRESSION

Involves the action of the story, including descriptions and visuals. Text compression squashes description, action, and visuals into a smaller space by using more efficient text than the original—e.g., less is more. This is where we get to the real meat and bones of compression.

How do you compress text?

1. Remove redundant beats and information.
Compacting information into efficient beads of story is the most basic form of compression. A beat is a subunit of a scene which represents the playing out of a single tactic by the character driving the scene. It can also be seen as a small interplay between characters about a single thing. By reducing beats that are repetitive or repeat information unnecessarily you can make your story leaner and stronger by making less say more. Master this point of compression and your story will improve tenfold.

2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
Compressing text increases its density while also creating subtext. This becomes really obvious when you compare the text density of short fiction to that of a novel. Certain forms (such as poetry and film) require higher levels of text density than others (novel, tv series, etc.). Text that is compressed into subtext will make the audience read between the lines more often, giving them more to do mentally and thereby creating greater engagement. Give them too little and you are insulting their intelligence. Assume the audience is equally as intelligent as you and you will be surprised at how much they understand.

3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
Although scenes are technically elements, this point refers specifically to elements on a smaller, more specific scale than scenes. Essentially, an element is any construct that artificially influences the story, such as events and plot points (as mentioned previously), characterizations, decisions, a chance encounter with a small character, an object or prop, something from the protagonist’s background, or even relationships (although not limited to this list by any means).

4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
Show, don’t tell. This cannot be said enough. There is a time and a place for summary (or a montage) but for the most part don’t just tell your audience about the world of your story and its inhabitants, show them by example. Unfortunately, this issue plagues the storytelling world of professionals and amateur alike, but it is especially important for newer storytellers to learn how to show—not tell—their story.

5. Cut extraneous details.
Whereas the first point of text compression involved cutting redundant information, this point deals with cutting information that is not pertinent to the story. It may be interesting that the character writes greeting cards for a living but unless it plays into the story somehow that is required for the telling of the story then it only gets in the way and dilutes the plot and/or theme. The shorter the work the more vigilant you have to be in keeping those superfluous details out of your story.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression

storysci.com screenshot image of screenplay about storytelling compression in part 2 of 3-article series

Welcome to Part 2 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. You can read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here.

Just because we saved the subject of compression for last does not mean it is less important than the points discussed in Part 1. As a matter of fact, it is so important in short form storytelling that we dedicated several articles to it, because compression is vital to understanding short form.

Compression.

It’s a mysterious word packed full of meaning. So what is it?

Many writers don’t know what “compression” means in terms of storytelling. Does this make them bad storytellers? No more than not knowing how many color rods are in the human eye will make someone a terrible interior designer. But knowing about compression and how to use it will make you a better storyteller.

Compression makes your story denser by compacting more information into less space. Whereas cutting material out altogether may achieve a similar purpose, by compressing you are not only trimming fat to make your story more lean and efficient but making it denser as well. Compression creates text density through subtext by implying information that is not otherwise made explicit. The audience must read between the lines to determine what is being meant by that which is not said. Therefore:

  • Text density is essentially how much information is packed into a segment of text or screen time.
  • Low density text conveys only what is written with little need for deeper thought or examination of subtext: “He moved the chair away from the table.” Genre fiction novels (mystery, western, romance, etc.) tend to have moderate to low text density.
  • High text density implies a lot of information without having to say much at all and may be used to demonstrate deeper, unspoken subtext: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” (attributed to Hemingway). Literary fiction probes the human condition through moderate to high text density.
  • Short form is most effective when using moderate to high text density.

To see exactly how compression works, let’s use it in reverse on the six word short story quoted above (the one attributed to Hemingway) to decompress the dense subtext packed into that one tragic sentence. Imagine that sentence as a 10-page short story with moderate compression. Now as a 200+ page novel with low compression. Over the course of story we may get a brisk summary of their wedding day, honeymoon, emotional ups and downs of pregnancy, etc., while spending the last half of the story tracking their emotional desolation over having lost a child.

Now let’s compare:

Compression: (Ultra)
High
Moderate Low
Word
Count:
6 4,000-5,000 75,000-100,000+
Pages: <1 10 200+
Minutes
(film):
3 10 120

After all of that, which version would you say was the most effective? The six-word form uses the least text but packs more emotional impact than a single sentence in any of the other forms. That is the power of compression. Saying more with less makes the audience actively fill in the blank, creating greater audience involvement, more emotional investment and thus a more powerful impact.

So now that we’ve talked about compression, let’s list the five most common ways in which you can use it to tighten your story (in order of importance):

  • Combine several elements with a single use into a single element with multiple uses (this is the very essence of compression).
  • Remove redundant beats and information.
  • When writing scenes: start the scene as late into the action as possible, end the scene as soon as possible.
  • Reduce your cast of characters to only those who advance the story or reveal character, preferably both.
  • Imply deeper characterizations and relationships through illustration, such as using meaningful names and places.

(A more in-depth examination of these points will follow in our next article: Part 3: The Three Types of Compression.)

Three things you should know about compression:

  • Younger storytellers tend to use less compression than mature storytellers.
  • Many writers (especially young ones) dive into writing short form without understanding how it differs from long form, resulting in a bloated short story with low compression like a novel. This approach can work but it seldom results in a piece that is as effective as one with higher compression.

COMPRESSION PRACTICE

It’s easy to put information onto the page or the screen, but it’s another thing entirely to compact that information into less space and have it say twice as much (or more). An excellent way to learn compression is by studying the discipline of screenwriting, where compression reigns supreme. And of course there are also writing exercises, such as the one below, designed to help you flex your compression skills.

  1. Write a one paragraph short story, description or character bio.
  2. Now write a new version of it but condensed down to a single sentence. Try to preserve as much information from the original as possible, implicit or explicit.
  3. And finally, the hard part: Condense your sentence down to seven words or less, preserving as much information as possible from the previous two versions, most of which will now be implied through subtext rather than explicitly stated through text.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our article series on short form storytelling where we will be examining the different methods of implementing compression in much greater detail.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 1: One Story, One Idea

Let’s start with the obvious: What is short form storytelling?

Short form is a story condensed into a brief, compressed format.

Storytellers tend to receive the majority of their training in long form techniques so this article is devoted to preparing you for short form storytelling, specifically the short story and short film.

What is considered short form?

Short form includes such familiar formats as television (30 minute sitcoms, one-hour dramas, etc.), short stories, short films and poetry, whereas long form includes the feature-length film, novel, and epic poem. Of course there are also forms which fit somewhere in the middle, like the long story, novelette, and 70-minute film.

Although the numbers vary depending on who you ask, here are some quick and dirty guidelines to give you an idea of lengths for short and long forms:

SHORT FORM LONG FORM
Film: under 70 minutes 70+ minutes
Prose: 7,500 pages or less 7,500 pages or more
Poem: up to 2 pages 2 pages or more

Typically a short film is under 30 minutes long but they can run up to 70 minutes. For more information on word counts in prose, refer to Prose Length and Word Count.

Shorter is simpler, but harder

Short form is deceptively difficult. It’s tempting to believe that shorter means easier, and while it does make the story simpler, it actually makes the piece more difficult to perfect. Most writers are accustomed to long form storytelling because that is the easiest way to fully express their ideas. In short form you do not have the luxury to explore every nook and cranny of your idea, so you can only include that which is absolutely relevant and necessary for your story.

In fact, short form is so challenging that many famous literary authors of the 20th century believed that the short story was not only the hardest type of story to write, but also the finest mark of a writer’s ability. Many an author has spent his/her career attempting to perfect the short story. (Short film and poetry have similar stories.)

Short Form is About One Idea

The key to short form is to concentrate on one clearly defined idea and bring it to fruition. The nature of short form does not allow you to cram more than one main idea into a short story without diluting its impact and creating an ambiguous mess. You also do not have the luxury of spending long periods developing characters or fleshing out your B- and C-plots. The longer your story becomes the greater its complexity will be, making it more difficult a story to tell. So keep your story compressed and strong by staying simple and always focused on your main idea.

Only that which is necessary and relevant

Short form is a compressed storytelling format where every ingredient has to carry its own weight. Prose, visuals, events and characters must count absolutely and definitively with no room for extraneous details or events. We call this necessary action. Necessary action means that only material directly relevant to the story should be included. Each element should be lean and efficient. Where possible, make each element count for multiple uses in regards to character, plot and theme.

Why Short Form is Worth the Effort

Although the market for short form storytelling is very select, it can be one of the best ways to improve your craft and learn invaluable skills such as compression (the subject of Part 2 of this article).

A few things you will learn while using short form:

  • How to tell stories efficiently.
  • How to say more with less (by means of compression).
  • How the story creation process works from beginning to end because it takes less time to complete short formats than long ones.

In the end, you may discover a new found joy in working with short form. Not only is short form liberating in its brevity, it requires a smaller commitment than long form and will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of your craft.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.