Tag Archives: stage play

Subtext, Part 2: What Does Subtext Do?

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.

So…

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?

Storysci.com's illustration of how subtext creates depth in storytelling.
Subtext adds depth and dimension to your story.

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.

But how?

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:

TV: Friends
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
LIT: 1984
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!

Still lost? Receive additional guidance from StorySci by contacting us or filling out the form below:

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: What Does Subtext Do?

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.

dialoguebubbles

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.

 

Want help on your dialogue? Let us know. Storysci is here to help!

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