Sunday, 20 January 2013

Subtext – The Most Critical Tool in the Story-Teller’s Box

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.

Creating 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:
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
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. 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.




  1. Would you say that dramatic irony fits into one of the types of subtext?

  2. As I was reading your bit on subtext I thought, "oh, this is interesting, but I just hope I can implement this kind of stuff naturally, without learning about it. Will learning this ruin my creativity? Will it plant the necessary seeds for me to improve my work?..." (Thoughts which have visited me before.)

    Then upon reaching the end, I read "The Story Book," and on the sidebar I see, under a picture of it, "Does Formal Learning Damage Natural Talent?"

    It's very tricky what you did here. Very tricky indeed... ;)

    I would love the chapter on subtext from The Story Book. How do I get it?

  3. Didn't realize subtext was so complicated. I was feeling a bit lost as I read this article, until you mentioned it was the subject of your PhD thesis.
    I believe the title of my novel, FOR EVERY ACTION There Are Consequences, illustrates the subtext of my story. Of course, I didn't choose the title until I'd completed the manuscript (for the 5th time with 4 other titles.)
    Do you equate subtext to the story's through-line?

  4. In response to above comments:

    1) If you posted a comment, I don't get your contact details to reply. Do you receive THIS comment as an email?! Please let me know!

    2) Yes, Cathryn, Dramatic Irony is the only form of categorised subtext previously identified - the result of a 'Privilege' knowledge gap embedded by the writer. It got noticed because it is so unnatural for a novice writer to give the audience plot information up front, and yet is a component of the most powerful stories.

    3) Lauren - I did find your contact details and am replying separately.

    4) Gail - you are right - there is even subtext in your title, which is excellent! Yes, I would say I equate subtext to the story's through line, but I equate it to just about everything. In every great story I have analysed, the 'key question' raised by an inciting incident is actually a form of subtext (every question is a knowledge gap, of course!); every life lessons learned by a protagonist is a form of subtext (learning a lesson is surely nothing more than filling a knowledge gap), and these are the two defining types of through line. In my next book - The Subtext Book (and in my thesis) - I am constructing an entire story theory based on the defining power of subtext, because most of the structures we traditionally use in formalism are underpinned by subtext (for example, the classic 'key question' structure mentioned above).

    Thanks for following and for your comments and kind words!


  5. I have a question. Since subtext is basically a knowledge gap, what happens if the audience knows exactly as much as the character? (Say in a first-person narrative) Does it make the story weaker? Or would a gap in knowledge between two characters also result in subtext?

  6. Hi Jake,
    Yes and yes. Firstly, a gap in knowledge between any of the participants in a story results in delivery in subtext. 'Participants' include any characters, the audience/reader, the author, and even more esoteric entities such as Mother Nature/God/Fate and so on.

    Secondly, if the audience knows the same as a character there is no subtext so there is no story in that event. Simple as that. It's just information exchange, like a bullet list of facts, with no difference in knowledge.

    My research is proving that the more subtext there is in a story the more popular it is. The less subtext, the less popular. No subtext - no story. Plato was always in Aristotle's shadow in Story terms, but he did identify two forms of information exchange - 'diegesis' clinical delivery of factual information and - 'mimesis' dramatisation of facts in order to deliver in the form of a re-enacted life experience. He noticed that this was potentially a definition of story, and that it required the witholding of information in order to work. Witholding information == Knowledge gaps!

    The caveat to what I say above is that my subtext theory still holds up with a 'story' based on information exchange, such as a news story or the story of medicine or some such, because even though it is a straightforward information exchange, at the beginning the communicator knows more than the receiver, and by the end that gap in knowledge is filled, so it still carries some story power. Indeed,subtext is THE most powerful tool of teaching and learning known to man - the very reason stories came into common use in the first place and the reason they are used in such similar ways by all societies.

    All a bit deep for a blog comment! I'll try to post more on this in future posts.



  7. You write: "the more subtext there is in a story the more popular it is" but isn't this the same as saying:

    The more conflict between characters there is in a story the more popular it is.

    I really think using the word ""subtext is confusing when we've been used to more readily accessible terms such as "double meaning" in what a character says. And "conflict" between characters. And looking at a story as a "game" played between author and reader.

  8. "Secondly, if the audience knows the same as a character there is no subtext so there is no story in that event. Simple as that. It's just information exchange, like a bullet list of facts, with no difference in knowledge."

    'in that event', you say. However, just because the audience knows exactly as much as the main character, doesn't mean there is NO subtext at all. Do other characters know as much or more than the main character?

    For instance, in a murder mystery with a first-person protagonist, the protag doesn't know right off who the murderer is. Neither does the audience. But the murderer knows, and if the murderer is available in the story to provide subtext -- say, a friend of the protag or relative of the victim -- there still needs to be subtext if the reader is to accept this person as the murderer at the end of the story.

    Having a first person main character does not mean there cannot be *any* subtext. The main character isn't the only character in the story, and others will usually know more than the main character and the audience. After all, you do say, "If the audience knows more or less than *any* character in the story, you have story delivery in subtext."

    I doubt this is really an argument (you obviously know everything I just said) but I just thought the commenter with the first person main character might like to know that there is still room for subtext in their novel.

    Oh, and I would love to see that chapter, too. bjmuntain at sasktel dot net :) Thanks so much!

  9. Hi BJ,
    You are right in that, for the sakes of blog-brevity, I reduced the criteria down to the audience position, as that is nine-tenths of it. The fact is that subtext comes from ANY gap in knowledge between any of the participants in a story, which can include any character(s), the audience, the author, even an ethereal presence such as ‘fate’ or ‘Mother Nature’!

    In a first-person narrative, the audience can share the privilege, with the protagonist, of knowing more than another character (see the example from Minority Report by Philip K Dick in the attached), or the audience may know more than the first-person protagonist – see the example from PG Wodehouse (the protagonist doesn’t understand the information, the audience does).

    Anyway, the full definition is in The Story Book. I will send you the relevant chapter.

  10. Your explanation of knowledge gaps has been very helpful to me in understanding the challenges of first person narrative. I finally understand why/where so many first-person novels fall flat. It is very, very difficult to give the audience privileged knowledge with a first-person, reliable narrator.

    Whenever I read descriptions of mysterious facial expressions, unexpected tone of voice, or other hints at hidden meanings, and then the character/narrator goes happily about her business, she comes across as an idiot. Often the narrator will include details for the reader's benefit without any reaction to them in the moment, and that really pulls me out of the story.

    I would just add a word of caution to your observations: Be sure knowledge gaps are smoothly integrated with POV. That is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of the craft.

  11. Hi Sarah,
    All stories get their power from subtext irrespective of PoV/3rd person/1st-person etc. It is no different, it is just the knowledge gaps move to different relative positions. I can't go throug it here, but in my book I use two specific examples - one from Philip K. Dick and one from P.G. Wodehouse (which is written in the first person) to demoonstrate subtext itself.

    I don't know whereabouts in the world you are, but if you don't have access to The Story Book get in touch and I will email you the chapter.



  12. Hi David,

    I have the book - love it - and have read the chapter, and I didn't mean to disagree with you at all! My point was more of a gripe, really. I have been reading a lot of first person manuscripts that don't work, and your chapter gave me the tools to figure out what's been bothering me. The author wants to deliver subtext, but tries do it in ways that don't fit with POV or voice. E.g., When a first person narrator points out something that we readers immediately understand but the narrator doesn't, there should be a good reason for his lack of insight.

    Your examples do illustrate subtext in different POVs, done beautifully.

    Sorry for the sidetrack. Thanks for a really helpful book.


  13. Greetings! I have been searching the net before I saw this domain!
    And I just found the thing I have been searching for!
    I completely like your domain. Blogs that contain so correct media are much more easier to read!
    I do recommend you to keep up the good job! It was my pleasure to see your post!
    See my page and get completely free of charge top eleven hack.
    Thank you. :D

  14. Reading about knowledge gaps in your excellent book made me immediately think about religion - and how how much religions keep their "audience" using knowledge gaps on so many levels. Which to me prove that using knowledge gaps must be a rmagificently good, timeless and powerful technique to present a good story...

    Anyways, I really enjoyed your book (It´s really way to cheap considering knowledge/value ratio) and I´m looking forward to your next.

    Best wishes,


  15. This is such an amazing article, the blogger have so much knowledge about this topic kindly write more about on Moral stories for kids and Urdu Moral Stories For Kids