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:
1. Writers leave gaps in knowledge;
2. Readers project knowledge into those gaps. 
3. Subtext is the knowledge that goes into a gap. 
Simple as that. And that knowledge that goes into the gap comes from the reader’s personal history and life experience. This is the secret to gripping story, and it’s the defining dynamic in every story ever made.
Going back to my opening sentence, 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?! 

The reason it is tricky is this: a baker does not work with cakes. A baker works with ingredients and ovens 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. Your job, as a writer, is to create the conditions for subtext. That is the craft of storytelling.

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 character saying these words knows 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 you can see there – we know there’s a shark and there is danger, and the girl swimming does not. Simple, beautiful subtext.
The more arty, sophisticated stories demand more work of the audience in providing the subtext that goes into the gap. More obvious, less demanding stories leave smaller, more obvious gaps. It is part of your work as a writer to set that parameter. Let’s play a game. I’m going to give you a narrative scenario in subtext. See how much information I have to give you before you ‘get’ the scenario.
1. A parked car. 
How is that working for you? Nothing? OK. I think we agree that nobody got my scenario from this. I have failed to create the conditions to trigger you into providing the right subtext. Let’s try again.
2. A car parked at a funny angle. 
Hmm. Now we’re thinking but still not everyone has got what I’m driving at. Let’s try again.
3. A car parked at a funny angle, outside a bank. 
Aha! Bingo! Now we have it. I successfully provided just the right amount of surrounding knowledge to trigger you to deliver the subtext into the gap I left.
I didn’t mention anything about a robbery, but you got there! I provided the conditions for subtext and you did the rest. Boom! THAT is the true craft of being a writer, right there.
That is the craft of storytelling and the magic of subtext. The quantity, depth and persistence of knowledge gaps in your story directly relates to the ‘quantity’ of subtext the receiver has to provide to complete the story for themselves, and that will decide 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?!
All the best with your writing!