Subtext: The Most Critical Tool in the Story-Teller’s Box
All writers are told that subtext is the ‘untold’ or ‘underlying’ story, and that stories must be delivered in subtext. Make no mistake–this is true. Without subtext, you literally have no story. However, what the great and the good fail to tell us is how in the world we are supposed to go about telling an ‘untold’ story? How do we bury our story, and still tell it, apparently without mentioning it?
So they give us examples. A character takes a girl by the hands, looks her in the eyes and says, ‘I love you.’ And the audience gasps, because they know that he’s about to leave her for another woman. This is all well and good, but still doesn’t help us understand how to deliver our stories ‘in subtext’.
What we need to know is what writers do to generate subtext.
Subtext results from what I call ‘knowledge gaps’. When you craft into your story a difference in the knowledge held by different participants, you introduce a knowledge gap–and simultaneously create intrigue and engagement. This is most easily expressed from the audience or reader perspective:
If the audience knows more or less than any character in the story…
…you have story delivery in subtext.
So there are two basic forms of subtext, based on whether the audience knows more or less than a character:
Take a mystery story. We follow the detective through all the events, we see all the clues, and we try to predict whodunit. Then the detective arrests the blonde, and we think, ‘Wha-what? The blonde? But she’s innocent! She’s the victim!’ and our minds go racing back through all that has gone before to try to establish what the detective spotted that we didn’t. The audience knows less than a character (the detective), and revelation subtext is built into the story.
As the detective bravely climbs the dark staircase towards the attic, his candle blows out and a chill runs through us all, because we know that there is an axe-wielding maniac waiting for him behind the door at the top. Knowledge gaps whereby the audience knows more than a character generate privilege subtext.
Within these two types there are at least ten mechanisms for introducing knowledge gaps. We shall look at the most common of these. Here is a story premise:
Protagonist BOBBY needs money, so he turns to a life of crime. He plans to cynically enter into a relationship with a businesswoman (VICKI) in order to get a job at her family’s business and steal from within.
How can we deliver this story in subtext? What are the main ways of introducing knowledge gaps?
Subtext through Promise
When we settle down to absorb a story, there is an expectation that the author will play by certain rules. One of those rules is that when a person, event or object is given some focus in a story there will be a good reason for it. When Bobby first appears, we assume he is important, so we want to know what he is like; what his agenda is; why he is featured. If Bobby goes to a shop and picks up a live chicken and a bicycle pump, we have every right to assume that this chicken and the pump will play a role in delivering the story at some point. I dread to think what purpose these items might serve (and I do fear for the chicken…), but you can see how the focus on them cracks open an intriguing knowledge gap.
Writers can use this, particularly in the difficult setup phases of a story, to have the audience raise questions in their own minds. Your audience will accept everything you give them as pertinent to the story, and will be dissatisfied if information fed to them proves to be irrelevant.
Subtext through Questions
Any form of question opens a knowledge gap. Most stories are based on a key question (‘Will Bobby successfully steal from Vicki’s family?’) and most story events raise and answer questions continuously (Will Bobby trick Vicki? Will Bobby get the job?). Raising and answering questions is a basic method of bedding in a knowledge gap.
Subtext through Subplot
Once the writer has raised these key questions, knowledge of Bobby’s agenda can be used to open up gaps, because when action takes place in a subplot the audience interprets the action in the context of those questions.
For example, the sequence in which Vicki takes Bobby home to meet her father carries additional power in our minds because we know more than Vicki and her father. We interpret everything in the context of Bobby’s overarching aim to steal from them. This is story delivery in subtext. We are watching real-time action–Bobby kissing Vicki; Bobby shaking hands with her dad–but the story is progressing through our own interpretations of these events in terms of Bobby’s plan to steal from them.
When Bobby kindly offers to wake up early and go and open the office at 5.00am so that Vicki and her dad can have a sleep-in, they are delighted at his kindness. They hand over the keys and go to bed feeling warmer about humanity. But we know more than they do… the real story–Bobby’s aim to steal from them–is untold, and yet is moving forwards in the gap between what Vicki knows and what we know.
Don’t forget that the privileged knowledge fed to the audience doesn’t have to be accurate, and a good writer will use an audience’s innate desire to fill gaps in knowledge to trick them with their own assumptions. At our story’s climax let’s say Bobby is caught out by Vicki. He didn’t trick the girl. He didn’t get the money. We project to a resolution where the crook gets his comeuppance. Then Vicki finds out that Bobby wanted the money to pay for a baby to have a life-saving operation. This revelation gap (Bobby knew more than we did) means our preconceptions about Bobby are stood on their head. Vicki doesn’t call the Police. She tells Bobby she loves him. The audience now re-configures a new ending in which he does get the money. He does get the girl. The baby gets the operation. Bobby and Vicki kiss and plan a long and happy life together. Meanwhile Vicki’s father has found out that Bobby is a crook, deceiving his daughter. He’s loaded his shotgun and is coming round…
The audience’s instinct to project ahead and make assumptions is continually invited to get busy in gaps in the knowledge between what the audience is teased into expecting and what actually happens. This is one key to great story-telling.
The story is about Bobby’s crooked agenda, and because Vicki and her dad do not know about it, there is a constant knowledge gap. This is a common story characteristic. Every superhero has a secret alter-ego that brings implicit subtext through subterfuge right across the story delivery. In the film Back to the Future, none of the 1955 characters know that Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a time traveller from the future. In Groundhog Day, none of the other characters know that weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) is reliving the same day over and over again, and therein lies these stories’ fundamental power–through subtext. We know what some characters do not.
The more the audience has to work to make up the story for themselves in the knowledge gaps, the finer the story is perceived to be. The reason so many people don’t ‘get’ Shakespeare is because the story is so buried in the subtext that it can only be understood through interpretation. People learn to love Shakespeare when they put the effort into interpreting the subtext and find solid gold stories that they perceived for themselves.
Make it your business to understand subtext. The quantity, depth and persistence of knowledge gaps in your story directly relate to how well your story engages an audience.
Oh, and by the way, the chicken and the bicycle pump moved to the suburbs and lived happily ever after…
David Baboulene has had 5 books published and 3 production deals in Hollywood and the UK.
He works as a story consultant with producers and aspiring writers, and is currently undertaking a PhD in story theory on the defining importance of subtext.
Do please get in touch if you have a specific area of story that puzzles you and I will send you a chapter from my book addressing the issue.
Thanks to Paul for the opportunity to write for this wonderful website.