Tag Archives: writing

Adapting Your Screenplay to Novel: Turning Your Script into a Book

So you’ve recently completed this amazing big budget blockbuster screenplay . Now you want to make something happen with it. The problem is: No one is biting.

Why?

Because big budget spec scripts don’t sell. (You can read more about that in my previous article.)

Maybe your best next step is to consider adapting your screenplay into a novel. Although this is the reverse of how the process usually works (books adapted into movies are more common), that doesn’t mean this road is any less viable. In fact, adapting your completed screenplay into a book should be a go-to course of action if your screenplay is still gathering dust after a year or two.

Recently, I decided to take a big budget fantasy script that was a pet project of mine and transform it into something marketable. That meant tossing aside the idea that this script would be sold on spec (it wouldn’t) and taking a more realistic approach: Turning my screenplay into a novel.

Having embarked on this new experience, I can now offer some helpful advice on what to expect when you adapt your spec script into a book.

If you haven’t dusted off that old screenplay lately, maybe it’s time to turn it into a book!

Why Adapting Your Screenplay Into a Novel is a GREAT IDEA

1. It’s far easier to get a book published than to get a screenplay made. And lastly, a successful novel will help build the IP required to support that big budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero spec script you wrote.

2. You already know the characters, story and world. Much of the hard work is already done. Writing the novel will also help deepen your understanding of each of these elements, in turn making the script even better (assuming you update it).

3. Simply put: It’s fun! So much more fun than I can put into words. The rush of writing those big visuals as they splash and evolve across the screen is simply indescribable. Why not enjoy what you love doing most?

CHALLENGES TO EXPECT

1. You Can’t Just Paste a Screenplay and Expect a Novel to Happen.

I cannot understate this point. Movies and book simply aren’t the same. This may seem obvious at first, but the differences are deeper and truer than even most professional realize. They handle storytelling in different ways. For you, this means you can’t just copy and paste your script into prose format. You will have to invest time in writing the book for the medium.

J.R.R. Tolkien once stated that his genre-defining epic The Lord of the Rings could not be filmed for this very reason. The effort to successfully adapt the series to screen required monumental effort by Peter Jackson and his many, many teams of moviemakers.

Cut-and-paste didn’t work going from book-to-screen, so it won’t work in reverse, either.

2. Not Everything Translates from Screen to Page.

Certain storytelling constructs will require additional effort to make them work. For example:

  • Novels reveal the internal monologue / film does not
  • Action thrives on screen / requires more work in prose
  • Screenplays are leaner, less forgiving / books have more freedom to explore
  • Novels are longer, so can have wider variance in structure / script structure is fairly rigid

3. You Will Have GapsBig Ones.

Whereas a screenplay has the magical effect of stimulating the imagination with minimal words on the page, and a movie has the luxury of using dedicated specialists to realize design for costumes, sets and atmosphere, a novel must do most of this for itself. For example, characters will require more description to capture the reader’s imagination.

Likewise, objects, sensations, visuals, impressions and feelings will take a little more exploration to make the same impact. Things you wouldn’t normally have to mention in a screenplay (because their presence is implied by the location, for example) often demand a mention to help set the scene as well.

Writers like J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrate a remarkable gift for writing minimal description to communicate their ideas. Storytellers like Herman Melville prefer to wax poetic for pages (even chapters) at a time about the virtues of a painting. Most of us lie somewhere in between.

Either way, be prepared to put some extra time into fleshing out the character gaps, locations, and the thoughts and sensory interpretations of the character, possibly even the narrator (if applicable). It helps to think of your screenplay as an annotated outline for your book.

4. Writing the Book Version Will Make You Want to Rewrite Your Spec Script.

Simply throwing a rough draft of your book onto the page will give you the opportunity to dive deeper into your characters and story world than you would have previously. I found it helpful to push myself through the end of a completed rough draft of the novel before taking a step back to reassess how my new discoveries might impact the next draft of the original spec script.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did simultaneously rewrite the script and the book. And yes, it was hair-pullingly difficult. In the end, both story forms benefited greatly from the process and I have no regrets.

(NOTE: Don’t feel obligated to rewrite your scriptnot at first, anyway. You can still use it as-is for a writing sample. Rewriting your script may not be worth the effort.)

5. Screenwriting is More Fun, but Novel Writing is More Fulfilling.

This isn’t so much a challenge as a forewarning. Nothing beats the rush of writing a screenplay, especially when you are wrapped up in the intensity and immediacy of the moment. Compared such an amazing experience, writing a novel can feel a little bit like a letdown. Not that it’s bad—because it isn’t—but in many ways, it takes longer in a book to cover the same ground as in your screenplay. That can be frustrating.

Still, in the end, writing a novel gives you so much more freedom to express yourself and explore the characters, voices and world than you get in the restrictive screenplay format. Because of this, creating a novel can be more fulfilling in the end. Even screenwriting great William Goldman recommended writing something other than screenplays on the side.

I still love my spec screenplay (it was a vanity project, after all), but I’m even more proud of the book that came out of it. Additionally, the novel version also has a dramatically higher likelihood of being read by other people than my spec script.

And let’s face it, there’s nothing like sharing your story with the world.

What was your experience? We would love to know.

So You Wrote a Big Budget Sci-fi/Fantasy Script. Now what?

Recently, I put the finishing touches on the second draft of a big budget fantasy feature screenplay. I wrote it both for fun and as a portfolio piece, knowing full well that a script like this would never get made. Even though it probably wasn’t the best use of my time, I still put more time, passion and meticulous care into this manuscript than I care to admit right now. (Hint: It was a lot.)

Curious for input from other Hollywood industry pros, I sent the script out for feedback. If you’ve ever written an original big budget spec script, then you probably have gone through what I experienced next. While the feedback was positive, these pros all told me the same thing: No one will ever want to buy this, no matter how good it is.

So, you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and no one in Hollywood wants to bite. You’re probably asking yourself: What do I do now?

Now that you have a big budget spec script on your hands, what do you do with it?

The short answer: Don’t toss it. Your script still has value.

The longer answer is, well, a bit longer. Let me explain.

Having a completed, polished screenplay under your belt will always be a feather in your cap whether you sell it or not. What you do with it next, however, is the big question.

First, let’s be clear and up front about expectations:

  • A big budget script is very hard to sell in Hollywood.
  • A big budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero script not based on an existing IP (intellectual property, such as Lord of the Rings or Marvel) is even harder to sell.
  • A big budget script based on an IP you do not own or have rights to will not sell in Hollywood (because it’s IP/trademark infringement).
  • Your big budget script probably isn’t going to be made into a movie.

In short, your big budget genre movie is next to impossible to sell (let alone get made) in Hollywood. That may sound harsh, but understanding the reality you are up against is crucial to knowing where you shouldn’t be focusing your efforts. Instead, we’re going to take practical steps to make the most of that awesome script of yours.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at your path forward. You essentially have two choices:

  1. Use your script as a writing sample.
  2. Adapt your script into a novel.

1. As a Writing Sample

If you are like me, writing sci-fi/fantasy is your jam, meaning when you write in that milieu, you are at your best (replace with superhero, action, etc.). Pick out a few choice selections from your script and use these to promote your ability, professionalism and creativity when auditioning for new writing projects.

You probably won’t jump to working on big budget projects directly from a spec script, especially if you are still new to the business, but it can be the linchpin that opens a doorway that eventually leads to that prized assignment.

Besides, while you are using your incredibly cool script as a staple portfolio piece, you can simultaneously be pursuing option #2:

2. Adapting Your Screenplay into a Novel

Converting your spec screenplay into a novel is perhaps your best route to getting that story onto the big screen (yes, you read that correctly). In fact, you can even do this and #1 simultaneously.

If your book is successful, then the powers that be will be much more keen to turn your book into a movie. Now you’re back where you started—except this time you have the backing of an existing IP.

However, I should err on the side of caution in saying that there are no guarantees here. All of this hinges on the fact that you can:

  1. Complete a novel,
  2. Get it published, and
  3. Reach a wide enough audience with a strong enough impact that your novel is considered successful enough for adaptation to the screen.

It doesn’t have to be a novel, either. Video games and comic books are viable options as well. In fact, your superhero script may be more suited to one of these genres than a novel.

Regardless of the route you take, embarking on this journey is certainly a far better strategy than sitting on a perfectly good, superbly awesome story that the world would otherwise never get to experience.

Better to share than to hoard in secret. (Yes, you can quote that).

So now that you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and nobody in Hollywood wants to bite, maybe all your story needs is a new medium to make it big.

Time to get writing.

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?

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

Create Subtext Through Implied History

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Today’s writing exercise focuses on a particular type of subtext.

A quick review –

Text operates on two levels: surface text and underlying subtext. While text represents the surface action, subtext consists of everything that’s really going on beneath that surface action—aka what’s not being said.

WHY

Identifying or explaining subtext is one thing, but actually embedding it into storytelling is quite another. In this exercise we will tackle the challenge of using subtext to create implied history in a character relationship.

PURPOSE

To help walk you through aging a character relationship by building successive levels of implied history through the use of subtext. With every successive layer of implied character history you add, note how the resulting subtext affects the way characters interact with each other.

CHALLENGE

Two characters walk into a kitchen to find dirty dishes in the sink.

Write a short conflict-laden scene between the two characters regarding the dirty dishes and using the following situational context:

  • The two characters are strangers who have just met for the very first time.

Now write a new version of the scene with the same two characters in the same situation, only with new added history:

  • Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.
  • Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.
  • In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.
  • In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

Did you come up with something interesting? Let us know!

 

Need some help?

Having trouble with this exercise? Here’s a little help to get those creative juices flowing —

WRITING PROMPT: Create Subtext Through Implied History

Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.

Not wanting to come off as mean or judgmental, Judy eases her way into asking Maggie about the dishes by approaching the subject indirectly. Then, after expressing her grievance in a polite, mild form, she closes her statement with a casual “…if that’s cool with you.”

How does Maggie respond? Does she respond with the same tone and tactic? Is she irritated? Maybe she feels like she doesn’t have time for beating around the bush, so chooses to escalate the situation, setting a bad precedent for encounters to come?

Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.

Sticking with Judy as our protagonist, she once again comes home to find a sink full of smelly, dirty dishes, even though (once again) it’s Maggie’s turn to clean them. Maybe Judy’s a bit of a neat freak while Maggie tends to let house hygiene slide somewhat more. While the dirty dish arguments remained somewhat polite for the first few months, they have since become increasingly forceful with raised voices, personal insults and wild gesticulations. Tempers flares. Doors slam. You get the picture.

But today is different. Her previous tactic having failed, what does she do or say differently to get her point across this time?

In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.

Somehow, somewhere, Judy and Maggie were able to look past their dish differences and form a long-term relationship of sorts (best friends, lovers, entrepreneurial partners—take your pick). It’s been a brutal 10-hour workday for Judy, so when she comes home to find that familiar odorous specter waiting for her in the kitchen, she’s finally had enough. Judy storms over to Maggie’s room, pounds on her door with all her might. Maggie finally emerges, ready for a fight. They scream, accuse, maybe even graduate to throwing dirty dishes at each other. Either way, the fight ends with Judy leaving for the local dive bar, vowing to move as soon as she’s saved up enough for a deposit on a new apartment.

In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

It’s been four decades since Judy and Maggie began their journey of communal living and over the years Judy has learned to pick her battles, knowing that for some things Maggie may never change. One of those things? Dirty dishes. Judy knows Maggie won’t clean the dirty dishes, even if it’s her turn. So when Judy comes home, sees the sink piled high with grimy porcelain, she already counts the confrontation as a loss. Instead of confronting Maggie about the neglect, she chooses to just suck it up and let the dishes rot. If worst comes to worst, Judy will do the dishes herself. Either way, Judy feels Maggie’s neglect of the dirty dishes is a fact she cannot change, and at this point, not worth the energy. So this time says nothing at all.

 

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