Tag Archives: stage play

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.

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

10 Characteristics of Good Dialogue

So you want to write dialogue. A lot of people think they write “good” dialogue without understanding even the basics. That’s okay. Dialogue is one of those technical aspects of storytelling everyone can learn. Let’s take a look at valuable characteristics found in truly good dialogue.

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Good dialogue…

1. Reveals character and plot in every line.

This is rule #1. Write dialogue with purpose. If each line doesn’t move the plot forward or say something about the character saying it, throw it out!

2. Doesn’t rely on itself as a crutch.

Dialogue shouldn’t be a crutch used in place of quality storytelling. Explain the minimum, draw in the audience, and trust in their brains’ ability to fill in the rest. Max Max: Fury Road and Interstellar are two recent great examples.

3. Distinguishes each character.

Every character should be recognizable and distinguishable by their dialogue alone, using cadence, vocabulary, and communication style to make it clear who is speaking without having a character name attached. When this rule is followed, the reader’s brain will fill in the character names for them, especially when reading stage and screenplays.

4. Isn’t redundant.

Don’t repeat information we’ve already heard or can see for ourselves. Don’t tell us about the action; show it to us. Cut down redundant beats and never say the same thing twice unless the tactic, subtext or context has changed.

5. Is appropriate to tone, setting, and time period.

Comedy dialogue should be funny. Thriller dialogue should be terse. Emotional dialogue should be heartfelt and passionate. When writing in a certain time period or language, be sure to do thorough research to ensure the dialogue feels authentic.

6. Doesn’t try to be real conversation.

This is a common mistake. Dialogue is not actual conversation. Dialogue is purposefully written in a way which reveals character and story, using tactics appropriate to the character to overcome obstacles and achieve a particular goal. In contrast, real-life conversation is vague and messy, filled with “well” and “um,” conflicting internal monologues and complex, muddy intentions and psychology, leading to what we hear on the surface.

7. Avoids hedges and fences.

Well, um, you know? Opening and ending sentences with these little words bogs down pacing, takes up valuable space, and decreases the strength of each line while wearing on the receiver’s nerves. Why? They’re essentially filler. While people say these things all the time in real life, characters are not real people and dialogue is not real conversation.

8. Minimizes direct exposition.

This is a big one screenwriting. If characters stand around and explain the story through direct exposition (which is telling, not showing), then the audience gets cheated out of sharing the experience of those events with the characters, which is how we build a relationship with them and grow to like, love, or hate them. Rather than revealing backstory or though processes through dialogue, try showing the characters make these decisions and take action to illustrating the story. Although there are some exceptions in TV writing and lower budget films, it’s still a standard guideline follow wherever possible.

9. Avoids tired clichés.

Avoid clichés like the plague. Rather, don’t use them at all, unless making a joke (see previous sentence). They stick out like a sore thumb (sorry), highlight lazy storytelling, and, more than anything, each instance bumps the audience out of immersion in the story’s world.

10. Doesn’t reveal major story points without evidence or setup.

Building on previous points, avoid advancing the plot through direct exposition via dialogue, especially when there has been no previous evidence or setup to clue the audience into the characters’ though processes or clue-seeking. It cheats the audience out of shared experience with the characters, delivers exposition clumsily, and leaves the audience out of the loop. Never leave the audience out of the loop. The story is for them, after all.

 

Of Mice and Men, a literary novella by John Steinbeck

By James Gilmore

Book cover for Of Mice and Men, a literary novella by John Steinbeck, on Minimalist Reviews.

Of Mice and Men might as well have been called “the ranch of broken dreams.”  Presenting itself like a stage play in all but format, author John Steinbeck maintains Aristotle’s unity of place and time by focusing our attention on a microcosm inhabited by two men who share a single hollow dream.  Ultimately, their dream collapses due to their own human weaknesses and those of their fellow men.  The fundamental core of the story illustrates how human beings latch onto hope, real or imaginary (but in either case perceived as actual), as a goal to strive for, as a reason for living, and how and why reality seldom plays out like our dreams say they ought.

Of Mice and Men packs brutal emotional impact through realistic, layered characters and relationships in this structurally sound novella.

Readers will find Of Mice and Men much more accessible than Steinbeck’s far more brutal Grapes of Wrath, and should be required reading for any serious reader or storyteller.

Rating: 5 / 5