Subtext – The Most Critical Tool in the Storyteller’s Box

By | 3rd September 2018

“Oh, my God! She’s such a -!”

Subtext – what lies beneath

You completed that sentence, didn’t you?! I left a gap, and you filled it with knowledge from your own experience of life and people. That, right there, is the secret to subtext. Writers leave gaps in knowledge; readers project knowledge into gaps. Subtext is the knowledge that goes into a gap, and that knowledge comes from the reader. We’ll find out if ‘she’ is what you think she is, and if you correctly filled that gap, before the end of the article. 
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 in this way? How can I tell my story 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’. 
The reason it is tricky is this: a baker does not work with cakes. A baker works with ingredients and kitchen utensils. Their customers work with cakes. It’s the same with creating subtext. Writers do not work with subtext. Writers work with knowledge gaps in order that the reader receives the story in subtext. 

Creating Subtext

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 other participant in the story, you have story delivery in subtext.
“Oh, my God, she’s such a -!” The author and the characters saying these words know what they think ‘she’ is. The receiver of this story does not, so we have generated subtext. There is a gap in knowledge (which you know I will fill by the end of the post) so grip and intrigue are generated.
The power of Jaws (1977) was largely in the fear we have of ‘what lies beneath’. Even the poster – we know there’s a shark and there is danger, and the girl does not. Simple, beautiful subtext. So there are two basic forms of subtext, based on the way in which the audience knows more or less than a character:

Revelation Subtext

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 and establish what the detective spotted that we didn’t. The audience knows less than the detective, and revelation subtext is built into the story. 

Privilege Subtext

Or you, as the writer, can choose to turn it the other way up. As the detective goes about tracking down the baddie, you let your audience see, through the events you show, that the murderer IS the blonde. Nooo. This is terrible. The detective doesn’t know – and this is a colleague at work. She’s a murderer, and she’s right next to him! She’s a friend of his wife. He’s asking her to babysit his children! Nooo! Don’t do it! We know, but the detective does not. Knowledge gaps whereby the audience knows more than a character generate Privilege Subtext.
Within these two broad classifications there are dozens of mechanisms for introducing knowledge gaps. For example, if a character makes a plan there are implicitly three differences in the knowledge held. Firstly, the question is raised: ‘Will the plan work?’. Then there is the difference between those who know of the plan and those who do not. And thirdly, as the plan is implemented, are things going to plan? This is just one of dozens of ways to introduce subtext through knowledge gaps. For example, by introducing a mysterious character; by using a subplot to influence another plot; by raising questions in the mind of the audience; by playing on audience pre-conceptions (just because she looks like a policeman doesn’t mean she’s not a criminal…); through subterfuge (secrets, alter-egos, lies and deceit are all wonderful examples of subtext); and so on.
Other less common types of subtext exist, using implication and suggestion, metaphor and allegory, and a character’s subconscious aims, but we are best to leave these for another day. The more the audience has to work to make up the story for themselves through filling in the knowledge gaps, the finer the story is perceived to be, so make it your business to understand subtext and create lots and lots of knowledge gaps.
The quantity, depth and persistence of knowledge gaps in your story directly relates to how well your story engages an audience. 
“Oh, my God, she’s such a beautiful yacht! This is the best birthday EVER!”
This may be a slightly glib example of a knowledge gap creating subtext, but did it keep you reading to the end?!
I am showing how a writer can work with knowledge gaps in the story development project that will lead to the film, Alfie. Sign up to follow progress HERE.
All the best with your writing!
David