Tag Archives: television

Why Does Success or Failure Matter? A Quick and Easy Guide to Creating Stakes in Storytelling

Let’s start at the beginning—

What Are Stakes?

Stakes are what a character stands to lose if they fail, or if they don’t do something. But more than that, stakes are the why.

What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is also a why, isn’t it? Yes! But stakes create that motivation.

If a character doesn’t have a reason to do something, then they aren’t motivated. When that character acts without being motivated to do so, we don’t understand why the character is doing what they do. It ends up feeling forced or contrived.

However, knowing what’s at stake if they don’t act gives that character a reason to move forward—because the alternative (not taking action) is worse.

In story terms, stakes are why something matters—decisions, complications, obstacles, plot points, etc.

Why Are Stakes Important?

Without stakes, you can’t have those big pivotal moments where the hero makes a choice between Option A and Option B. Stakes crystallize why a reluctant hero must rise to the challenge to take on a difficult task because what they stand to lose if they don’t take action is worse. Stakes are why the hero can’t just walk away from the people relying on him/her/them and take the easy way out.

What If My Story Doesn’t Have Stakes?

If you don’t know already, I’m a story consultant. All too often, I see screenplays, novels or tabletop game materials that are missing stakes.

This lack of stakes will tank your story’s impact in a number of ways:

  • The audience won’t understand your characters’ motivations.
  • The audience won’t invest in your characters or your story.
  • The audience will feel like the plot has not point.
  • The audience will come away feeling like the story was a waste of time.

Stakes make the decisions and actions of the characters matter. Stakes are why we invest in the protagonist and their success. As we, the audience, bond with those characters, their success or failure becomes ours.

Yikes.

Nobody wants that.

How Do I Put Stakes in My Story?

Once you know how stakes fit into the narrative formula, it’s actually quite simple. The easy place to start is in terms of “life and death” because the outcome of success (life) or failure (death) is so concrete. That’s your starting point.

Next, let’s abstract that idea to character growth (“life”) or character death (“death”). Characters must continue to grow and develop or they become stagnant, which is “character death” from a narrative perspective.

A character that ceases to grow is for all intents and purposes “dead.” If your protagonist has become stagnant, something must happen to make them grow again. Nobody wants to follow a protagonist that stays narratively dead. Instead, they want to experience a character moving forward in growth, meaning success or “life” in the narrative.

Many movies start out with the protagonist “stuck” in a status quo that does not allow them to grow, motivating a need for change but unable to move forward without the inciting incident that will change everything.

A protagonist who finds themselves in a dead-end job and marriage has died, proverbially or narratively. But then some spark suddenly introduces itself and they now have the opportunity to grow again—to choose “life.” Or, the protagonist can remain where they are by choosing “death.” (Think American Beauty.)

Some people find it helpful to think of the “life” part of stakes as the character’s “way of life.” That is, the way of life that is best for the character, usually involving growth or moving forward in some way.

Faced with the two choices, the protagonist is motivated to choose growth (“life”) on the new path. But there will be obstacles along the way that block the protagonist’s path, threatening to send the character back into stagnancy (“death”). If the character overcomes the obstacle, they succeed and move on, continuing to grow. Failure means a setback (if the stakes are lower). Later in the story, when the stakes are high enough, failure means a return to death.

So a rough formula might look something like this:

Stakes > Motivates Action/Decision > Character Proactively Acts/Decides > Faces Obstacle > Fails or Succeeds

If Succeed > Raise Stakes

If Fail > “Character Death”

Tips for Putting Stakes in Your Story

Here are a few quick tips to help you put stakes in your story:

  1. The stakes must be clear, always.
  2. The stakes must be big enough to motivate action or decision.
  3. Don’t go too long without reminding the audience what’s at stake.
  4. The strongest stakes confront characters with “death”—metaphorical, proverbial, or literal.
  5. Start small, go big. Use that contrast to create a sense of rising conflict.
  6. You can always go bigger.
  7. Can you lower the stakes? Only if other, bigger stakes present themselves.
  8. Once an obstacle is overcome, raise the stakes (repeat as needed).
  9. Use other characters to illustrate the consequence of failure (i.e., the stakes).
  10. Use antagonists to actively work against the protagonist, enforcing the stakes.
  11. Your antagonists have stakes, too. What motivates them to succeed over the protagonist?
  12. Use escalation and counter-escalation to continually raise the stakes.

Making It Matter: Examples of How Stakes Work

Let’s say we have a male character that runs a business. He is motivated to complete a big project for his biggest client. He’s operating a business, after all. But that motivation alone is not very strong. Knowing why he wants to complete the project strengthens that motivation significantly. We add that “why” with stakes.

Here’s how we might do that:

  • The project is on a tight deadline.
  • It requires his entire workforce.
  • If he fails to deliver the project at high quality and on time, he may lose that client forever.
  • If he loses his biggest client, his struggling business will fold, and everyone will lose their jobs.
  • The business owner will lose the business he built from the ground up for more than 40 years.

If the audience knows those five whys—what the stakes are for failure—the owner’s motivation suddenly becomes a helluva lot more powerful. Because we know the whys, as the audience, we invest in that character’s success and want him to succeed. He knows the stakes, too, driving him forward. The more the character wants to succeed, the more the audience will want it for him.

Raising the Stakes

Throughout your story, there should be a general rise in the stakes. At each obstacle or plot point, you can “raise the stakes.” When you raise the stakes, you are adding more to what your character will lose if they fail. It not only fuels motivation so they don’t give up when faced when bigger and harder obstacles, but keeps the story interesting and the audience invested. By the time you reach the big climax in act three, the stakes should be at the highest possible point.

The simplest way to raise the stakes is to throw in a new complication. After all, you can’t sit on the same stakes forever or the audience will get bored. Adding a complication, bump, or obstacle in the protagonist’s goal-seeking puts pressure on the character, making it harder to achieve that goal. Again, the stakes make all of that matter.

How much can you raise the stakes? All the way! But keep it appropriate to the world of your story.

For example, you can go: Loss of face > loss of status > loss of livelihood > loss of life > loss of family’s life > loss of country > loss of world > loss of universe > loss of time and existence.

However, going all the way to the “loss of time and existence” may be too  big to be appropriate for your story. A smaller, character-oriented story will run on a smaller scale than a big action sci-fi story. But, as with the narrative character “life” and “death” concept, the “loss of time an existence” can be expressed in metaphorical terms in relation to the character. For example, our business owner may feel this way about the loss of his business.

Speaking of which….

Example of Raising the Stakes

Let’s return to the example of the business owner:

Time to throw in something new—a complication to the business owner’s goal. He discovers one of his employees is stealing from him, jeopardizing the project. If it continues, the project won’t be completed on time and the business owner risks losing money, the client, his business, and more.

To overcome the obstacle, the business owner proactively confronts the employee, who responds by threatening to frame the owner for fraud—raising the stakes.

How does this raise the stakes? Now the stakes are bigger than before: The business owner stands to lose his biggest client, business, livelihood, the livelihood of his employees, and he’s in danger of losing his reputation and going to prison.

We can do this in other ways, too:

The business could burn down, or the client pulls their order without paying at the last minute, or the employees stage a walkout because of the long hours they’ve been working. Maybe all of these complications happen, adding pressure to the business owner and illustrating for the audience how close to failure the protagonist is.

In the third act, the stakes may inflate to their biggest size yet.

Maybe the business is a small biotech research laboratory. An insider from his client reveals that if the lab can’t deliver this order on time, they won’t be able to contain a dangerous pandemic. The stakes jump from loss of livelihood and reputation to global life and death.

Whew!

Without stakes, none of it would matter.

There’s an added bonus in working out the stakes for your story. Did you notice how, in doing that, we inadvertently (but deliberately) outlined an entire story and all its major turning points? And what a dramatic story it is!

If you are struggling with structuring our outlining the major beats or plot points of your story, consider looking to the stakes and seeing if that helps you get over that hump to reach the finish line.

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Rewriting Process

Ask any writer what the hardest part about writing is and most them will you: rewriting. For many storytellers, rewriting is not only highly challenging, but not a whole lot of fun, either.

What makes rewriting so hard?

Take your pick:

  • Writing and rewriting/editing are two different skills
  • Rewriting is more technical and analytical, less creative
  • It feels confining compared to the freeness of pure creation
  • Self-editing is difficult because of your inherent bias
  • When your head is so far down in the weeds, it’s difficult to keep your eye on the big picture

Rewriting may be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to put a brick wall in front of your story’s future development. With that in mind, let’s look at five easy ways to make the rewriting process a little easier.

1. Make a Laundry List of Rewrites

How do you tackle rewriting a manuscript that needs so much work, it’s simply overwhelming? Make a list! A laundry list is a to-do list that itemizes each thing that needs addressed in your rewrite, separated into groupings of big, medium, small, and minor. You go through the list one item at a time, devoting all your focus to solving that one problem, starting with the biggest and most important issues, and then dialing in on smaller line items from there. Addressing big rewrites ends up solving many smaller items along the way. By the time you’ve finished your list, your next draft is suddenly much, much better. Not only does making a laundry list help you get organized, it allows you to focus on only one issue at a time without getting distracted or overwhelmed by everything else that needs to be done.

For more on this technique, read the full article here.

2. Save Every Draft Separately

You never know when you are going to need a snippet from an old draft until you suddenly need it—and can’t find it! Rather than saving over your current files, save every new significant draft as a separate file (or folder). Not only does this allow you to go back to old drafts to recover useful tidbits, but if anything happens to your current draft (e.g. computer crash) or you end up rewriting yourself into a corner, you always have a backup. Version tracking and management can be crucial, especially when working on variable story lines (like video games) or when dealing with complex deliverables (such as multilateral marketing collateral).

3. Keep Your Outline Current

As you proceed through multiple drafts of your manuscript, it’s a good idea to keep an updated outline of your story at all times. That way, as you get wrapped up in the smaller details of your story, you still have an easy reminder of the big picture—that is, the outline helps you see the forest while you are working among the trees. You can make notes about other points in the story via the outline without completely derailing your current writing task as well. The outline also prevents confusion as the story undergoes multiple drafts wherein story elements may change. Your outline essentially overrides any discrepancies between the different drafts, which becomes especially important if you decide to set the project aside for a few months and come back to it later on (see 5. Let It Rest below.)

4. Get Outside Input

Even though the process of soliciting feedback on a creative work can be painful, it’s also one of your most useful tools in rewriting. You get so involved in the world of your story that it becomes difficult to gain outside perspective—that is, how a prospective audience will interpret the story you’ve invested your heart and soul into.

A few tips for soliciting feedback:

  • You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) accept every criticism. Many will be way off base. Look for trends or repeat comments among various parties. These will be the areas to focus on.
  • Only a fraction of the people who offer to read the work will actually read it. Of those, only some will provide feedback. That’s totally normal.
  • It’s okay to preface handing out your work by saying the story is in early stages and you are just looking for general feedback. Let them know it’s not a final draft. Most people will understand, and many will be excited to offer their input.
  • Don’t get too discouraged if the majority of people who read your story aren’t super into it—that’s okay. It’s normal. You may get better results if you ask for feedback to a specific target audience similar to that of your story (“anyone out there like horror?”).
  • Try to seek out readers who are more likely to offer constructive feedback rather than accolades. While compliments feel good and can be quite inspiring, they won’t as helpful as honest feedback.

5. Let It Rest

You’re stuck. You’re frustrated. It doesn’t seem like anything is working. So you shelve the story to give it some space and “let it rest.” You aren’t giving up. You’re simply setting it aside for a while with the intent to come back to it at a later time. Does this sound like you? Or something you would like to do? Guess what? “Let it rest” is a tried-and-true rewriting method for countless writers over the centuries. Not only is it an acceptable rewriting process, it’s a highly recommended one that can help you get “unstuck.”

Here are few reasons why coming back to a story after it’s been off your mind for days, weeks, months or even years, works so well:

  • A fresh look gives you a new perspective on the story, especially the big picture.
  • You get to experience the story more like your audience will.
  • You have a more mature, experienced skill set.
  • It’s easier to spot problems you missed before.
  • Coming back to an old story can inspire you to finish it.

After all, there’s nothing so reinvigorating to your storytelling senses than picking up an incomplete manuscript that’s begging to be finished.

We’ve explored five easy ways to improve your rewriting process. These methods are by no means an exhaustive list, but they are easy and everyone can use them.

What techniques do you use to make your rewriting process easier? We’d love to hear them.

Still Feeling Stuck?

If you still need help with finishing your story—no matter the medium—don’t hesitate to reach out to our experts here at StorySci.com. We offer story consultation and rewriting services, among many others.

10 Tips for Writing That TV Pilot

So you want to write your own television show. Great!

Before you commit to writing the pilot episode for your brand-new TV show, why don’t you take a look at these 10 helpful tips for writing that TV pilot that will make your writing life a little bit easier.

1. Prepare to Invest

Many people jump right into writing episode one—the pilot for a brand-new show—thinking, “Hey, this will be WAY easier than writing that new novel of mine, or taking all that time to write a feature-length screenplay.”

Reality check: It isn’t.

In fact, developing a good TV pilot can be the hardest and most involved of all three, even though the end result may only look like 40-60 pages from the outside. This is because when you write a pilot, you aren’t just writing the script for episode one; you are creating a whole new concept with complex characters, multiple story threads, with as many setups and ideas for future episodes as possible. When someone reads your pilot script, they will only be reading the tip of the iceberg, not the vast amount of backend work that went into producing those measly few pages.

2. The Concept Must KILL

Before you really dig into your show, take enough time to make the concept air-tight. What do we mean by “concept”? The concept is a fleshed-out version of the core idea for your TV show—the idea that makes your show different from every other show out there.

If your concept is clear, it should be obvious what makes your show different from others and also make someone want to watch the show itself. For example, “ER for women” was a successful concept that became Grey’s Anatomy, based on the success of an already existing show but with a new angle. Lost created appeal through the concept alone: A group of strangers become lost after crash landing on a mysterious island inhabited by strange forces, but while surviving on the island, each character finds individual purpose after having been “lost” in their personal lives back home.

That said, make the concept grab the audience’s attention. For example, don’t just write an alien invasion show. It’s been done many times and hasn’t been successful. But if you want to write an alien invasion show where humankind is the invader—now that’s an interesting twist people can get behind.

3. Legs: The Show Must Go On

For American television, “legs” are very, very important. What do we mean by legs? “Legs” refers to the potential episodes the show can produce in the long-term based on the concept. A more open-ended concept typically offers more “legs.” A closed concept with one specific, attainable goal offers less of a future (if any).

With that in mind, part of what your pilot must do is setup the long-term future of the show—the “legs.” My Name Is Earl did this by using a wide-open concept with no foreseeable limitations (his list of wrongs to “right” can be as long as the sun, for all we know). A show about thieves planning a heist is problematic in that the goal is far too easy to reach. Once they’ve reached their goal, where does the show go from there? Breaking Bad solved this by always creating a bigger goal for the protagonist to achieve once (or even before) the old has been solved.

4. Know Your Audience

This should go without saying, but it comes up far too often to leave out. If the show doesn’t have a clear or specific audience in mind, then it will not be successful. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Stranger Things nail their audience targeting. Now imagine if Pretty Little Liars was written to target 30-something males…it would have bombed. The mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica tried to rope in a wider female audience by focusing on romance in later seasons, and the result turned the show into a soap opera in space—disappointing original and the new audiences alike. The moral of the story? Yup, you guessed it: Know your audience.

5. Characters Are Everything, Protagonist More So

While characters are the heart and soul of any story, in television, they are the most important element. The cast needs to do more than survive the pilot. They will be responsible for carrying the show long-term. Above and beyond that, the central protagonist needs to be the most interesting of all, fleshed out with enough potential new material to keep audiences coming back episode after episode, season after season. If your characters don’t have enough setups in the pilot, they won’t be interesting enough to carry a second episode. Remember, anything that applies to the characters counts doubly so for the protagonist.

6. Include Act Breaks

In the modern age of commercial-free Internet streaming, writers sometimes think their pilot scripts should also be act-free (act breaks are where the commercials play). Incorrect. Always include act breaks.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Act breaks represent major structural highs and lows in the plot, so leaving them out flattens these points and harms the overall flow of the story.
  2. It makes the writer look like they don’t know what they are doing, even if they do.
  3. It creates ambiguity about the script’s end goal—is it a short film? Is part of the script missing? Is it actually half of a feature screenplay?

When you aren’t there to explain it to the people reading the script, any extra uncertainties can stop your pilot’s progress dead in the water.

7. Don’t Forget the B-Story

Sometimes writers leave out or drop the B-Story in their pilot because due to lack of room. Big mistake. Don’t ever do this. Your pilot needs to have a B-Story—industry pros will be looking for it and they will notice if it’s missing. Believe it or not, so will your audience. A script with just an A-Story tends to feel hollow and like it’s missing “heart.” Remember, the B-Story is a chance to humanize your characters, keep main cast members involved in the show even when they aren’t directly involved in the A-Plot, and give the audience a breather from the main storyline. The B-Story is also a chance to loosen up and have some extra fun with the show.

8. Blueprint the Show

Your pilot script not only needs to set up the world of the show, character problems and imply future storylines, it must “blueprint” the entire show by illustrating how a normal episode will run its course. This can be tricky because you are essentially trying to pack two different episodes into one. But it’s necessary to communicate the look, feel, and overall sense of what it means to be “the show.” In recent years, well-funded projects have tackled this difficult task by creating two-part pilots (two episodes viewed back-to-back), the first part taking its time to set up the show and the second part showing what a regular episode will look like. While an ideal solution, in a spec script that’s a dicey option since it requires double the effort, double the budget to make, and thus doubles the risk of failure from an investment standpoint. So, for spec script, try splitting up the pilot into first half for setup and second half for blueprinting. Alternatively, integrate them together so we don’t notice. It’s much harder and comes with its own risks, but can payoff in the form of a solid pilot script that stands on its own.

9. Create a Show Bible

You don’t absolutely need a show bible to write a successful pilot, but it helps—a lot. Think of it as a multi-use tool where you can include all your notes and ideas about future episodes, character and story arcs, character bios, hidden and upcoming tidbits, etc. Putting all of this into a formalized document that can be shared along with the pilot shows industry execs that you are serious about your pilot, you’ve spent time developing the show beyond episode one, and that you’re thinking long-term. Having a show bible in your back pocket also allows you to cram less into your pilot (it’s written down elsewhere) and enrich your characters on screen because you’ve spent time exploring them in the bible. Don’t be fooled, creating a show bible can be an overwhelming task. Start by breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces, like short season/episode synopses, character roles, flaws, dreams, secrets, etc.

10. Bible First, Script Last (Outline in Between)

Writers and writing teachers often view their “writing” or tangible end product in terms of written pages. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Try developing a show bible first and getting that really solid, create an outline of the pilot, break it down into a beat sheet, and then write the actual pilot script last. That way you’ve had more time to figure out all the little details and plotlines beforehand, so you end up with stronger pages and fewer rewrites. Once words are down on the script page, it becomes hard to “kill your darlings” and make the necessary changes. But with a show bible, outline, and beat sheet in hand, your first true “draft” resulting in pages will look far closer to a finely-polished script than you may get by going through old fashioned draft iterations.

Now that you’ve had a chance to check off the last 10 boxes, are you still ready to accept the challenge of writing that TV pilot? Hey, it’s the golden age of television right now, so maybe you should.

Working on a TV pilot? Let us know. We’d love to hear about your progress!

Need help developing or rewriting your TV pilot? Contact us today for a consultation.

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.

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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: What Does Subtext Do?

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MST3K: The Return, a Minimalist Review

While fans of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) are either loving or hating The Return  (read: Netflix “reboot”), its reception elsewhere is much more lukewarm. Starring Jonah Ray,  Hampton Yount as the voice of Crow T. Robot,  and Baron Vaughn as the voice of Servo (also known for his role on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie),  The Return goes back to the old Joel Hodgson formula, complete with the much-loved invention exchange.mst3k_thereturn

Slipping into the roles of this trailblazing trio is Jonah Ray,  whose serviceable performance as an average but not-so-average guy lacks the humble charm of his predecessors, and yet manages to come across as rather likable after an episode or two. Patton Oswalt repeatedly demonstrates his performance to be the most well-acted role in the whole show and a welcome inheritor of TV’s Frank role as the evil bumbling sidekick.

But it’s the robots that stand out most. Like Jonah, as characters they are pretty bland with undifferentiated behaviors, jokes, and even voices (it’s easy to confuse the three voices in the darkened theater). Their personalities are essentially interchangeable, making them feel underdeveloped and gimmicky, like caricatures of the originals. Even Gypsy (previously voiced by Jim Mallon), whose role as the somewhat mentally slower robot sibling, is not exempt. Altering her voice from “funny” to “young and sexy” strips her character of one her most defining feature.

The show launches with a rocky start. Its series opener aims below cheesy for the disappointing sub-adequate mark. Jokes range from fair to good, rarely great. By the second episode the team finds their riffing groove and the comedy becomes relatively smooth sailing from there on out.

That said, Jonah and the bots carry a heavy torch in following up the comical adeptness of MST3K’s original cast. While it may be hard to live up to the legendary Joel, Mike, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Frank Conniff (let alone the powerhouse trio of Mike-Kevin-Bill, now of RiffTrax fame), even they did not start out as comedy all-stars. But with a little time and practice, maybe they will one day surpass the originals.

For many, the magic is in the freshness of seeing new MST3K episodes for the very first time. Or perhaps it is watching as one of the greatest cinematic experiences in living memory passes onto a new generation while also stoking the dormant coals of that beautiful old nostalgia.

What’s the conclusion for this Minimalist Review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return?

Meh.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

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The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a Minimalist Review

Brenda Hampton’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a TV show, in that it has characters with their own personalities, desires, coming into conflict with each other within a plot of sorts. However, it is hardly more than that.

TheSecretLifeoftheAmericanTeenagerWhile the overall storyline plays out like an immature daytime soap, characters and conversations give the impression that the show is being written by a sheltered 14 year old virgin guessing at how adults and teenagers must act in the “real” world, with limited understanding about relationships and the facts of life. The end result is a weird demonization of sex that confuses hormones, love and lust in ways that are inaccurate, misleading and downright harmful. If teenagers are using this show as a guide to navigating their teen years, they will be in for a considerable shock.

Episode plots are absurdly repetitive, so skipping 1 or 5 episodes results in landing on the exact same issues you left on. Most of the show’s screen time is spent pounding outdated morals and values over the heads of their teenage characters.

Despite being set in Los Angeles–one of the most multi-cultural cities in the US–the cast is almost entirely white, with one representative couple for each other ethnicity. But even those groups are played as “white” for all intents and purposes.

Character arcs rarely surprise as they take on predictable lines. The principals tend to fall back into the same issues repeatedly. The main female lead proves herself the most heinous of the bunch, acting selfish, petty, demanding and spoiled to the point where she ends up as a sort of villain to her supporting cast. If you want to a watch a show where nearly every character ranges from unlikable to downright loathsome, you’ve come to the right place.

While the characters themselves are rather well-formed, their dialogue seems to be written by someone who has never heard of subtext…or a thesaurus. The collective ensemble ends up wielding a combined vocabulary equivalent to that of a single 10 year old.

To sum up…

The Secret Life is one of the worst television shows to survive more than one season on the air, let alone a mind-boggling five. It is a show that exists for reasons beyond reason. If any script from this show came across my desk for analysis, it would have been an easy PASS/PASS.

Rating: 1.5/5

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