What is subtext? Why is it important? Why is subtext fundamental to a story’s quality.
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:
Within these two types there are at least ten 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 (particularly ‘I know what the protagonist wants - how is he going to get it?’); by playing on audience pre-conceptions (just because he looks like a policeman doesn’t mean he’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 relate to how well your story engages an audience.
This is my specialist area and the subject of my PhD thesis. for full details and in-depth examples, take a look at section 4 of The Story Book.