Tag Archives: storytelling

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.

Until then, tell us about your personal experiences with subtext.

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.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

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.