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

By | 3rd February 2018
What is subtext? Why is subtext fundamental to a story’s quality.

Subtext – what lies beneath

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’. 
The reason it’s tricky is this: a baker does not work with cakes. A baker works with ingredients and kitchen utensils. Her customers work with cakes.
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 character in the story, you have story delivery in subtext.
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 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 bad person 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. 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…); subterfuge (a character with a secret, an alter-ego, lies and deceit are all wonderful examples of subtext). 
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 in the knowledge gaps, the finer the story is perceived to be, so make it your business to understand subtext.
The quantity, depth and persistence of knowledge gaps in your story directly relates to how well your story engages an audience. 
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!