Do You Know Your Story’s Subtext?

by Jami Gold on August 13, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Book with a hole cut into the pages with text: What Message Is Hiding in Your Story?

Last week we discussed the messages and meanings hidden within genre stories. Sometimes we, as writers, might not be aware of all the impressions readers take away from our writing.

The messages readers get from our writing aren’t always explicitly stated. That is, a story’s meaning and hidden messages lurk in elements like subtext, theme, and promises made to the reader.

I’ve written before about the danger of unintentional themes and broken stories where these elements don’t fit well together. It’s easy for our stories to suffer from these problems because virtually every plot event and every characters’ choice, motivation, interaction, and internalization contains subtext.

Er, yeah, that means almost every sentence has the potential for creating unintended big picture impressions with readers. Let’s look at each of these areas and see how we can accidentally lead readers astray.

Subtext in Plots

When we’re coming up with plot events, rather than working from A to B, cause to effect, we’ll sometimes work backwards. We start with the impression we want to give readers and figure out an event that will result in that impression.

For example, someone following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet might decide they need the hero to do something good to make them likable (the literal “save the cat” type of scene). The author has hundreds of options for a scene that will make the character likable, and each of those options will create a different impression in the reader.

If we have the hero literally save a cat, readers might find them likable, yes. But why? A scene like that could have the subtext that the hero likes cats, that he’ll save the damsel in distress later, or that the hero’s willing to do something uncomfortable (claws and fur on his Armani suit?). Or all of the above.

Those are all “good” qualities. But what if we’re writing a romance and want the reader to come away with the impression that the hero would make a good husband/future father? Saving a cat—no matter how noble of an act—might not cut it.

On the other hand, a plot point of the hero “saving” the neighbor kid’s football from his roof isn’t as dramatic as saving a life, but the impression it leaves with the reader might be closer to our goal. The subtext there could include that he’s patient with children, that he’s in touch with his childhood memories (not too psychologically broken), or that he’s not high-strung about his property, etc.

The plot events we choose, even if they follow the correct cause-and-effect path and hit the right beats, can still give readers the wrong impression. Or at the very least, fail to strike a better (more important) impression.

Subtext in Characters

When we’re looking at characters, subtext can be even more layered and nuanced (i.e., confusing). At the character level, subtext happens everywhere:

  • Character Choices: Characters make choices in every scene. Every action provokes a chosen reaction. They’re faced with a dilemma and must decide how to respond. Will they take their friend’s advice? Will they chase after the bad guy? Each decision creates subtext about the character’s values and the story’s themes.
  • Character Motivations: The same decision could have radically different subtext depending on the motivation—why they make the choice they do. Does the hero step into the fray because they want to stand up for underdog or because they’re trying to impress someone? Motivations add another layer to the character’s values and the story’s themes.
  • Character Interactions: How characters treat each other says loads about the kind of people they are. What they choose to reveal or keep secret says even more. Interactions, in addition to layering the character’s values and story’s themes, provide insight into what’s holding the characters back from being fulfilled and happy.
  • Character Internalizations: Observations by the point-of-view characters provide deep insights into their values, what they long for, what they’re afraid of, and the story’s theme. Character narrators (even the supposedly “reliable” narrators) constantly give readers messages that aren’t explicitly stated.

All of these add together to create an impression of the characters in the reader’s mind. These layers—that we might not be aware of—can make it difficult for us to recognize our story’s subtextual problems. As with so many things, we usually need beta readers and/or a developmental editor to help us with this step.

How a Story Can Get the Subtext “Wrong”

On the surface, a story could hit all the right beats, introduce us to deep three-dimensional characters, and force us to turn pages like a fiend long after our bedtime, and yet not add up to a satisfying read. Often the problem lies in the subtext:

  • A hundred good acts (plot events) might not make a character likable if the subtext in the character elements (such as their motivations for those acts) creates a negative impression.
  • A story where the bad guy is vanquished and everyone lives happily ever after might leave a reader unsatisfied if the subtext led them to believe the hero longed for something else.
  • A story with a theme about standing up for ourselves might leave the reader with an impression that the character failed if the resolution involved them being saved by another or being passive in any way.
  • A story with the strongest, most kick*ss character imaginable might still create a “too stupid to live” impression if the character’s choices or motivations seem lame.
  • A story with a romance triangle could leave readers unhappy if the subtext in the character interactions make the other choice look like a better match.

Personally, I love finding this stuff in others’ stories (that’s half the reason I decided to start offering editing services), but that doesn’t mean I can see all these messages in my own work. We need an outsider’s opinion—a beta reader and/or a developmental editor—to help us identify these mismatches between our intentions and what the subtext says to readers.

Subtext, Reader Expectations, and Broken Promises

We’ve heard that we need to keep the promises we make to readers, and in general, that’s great advice for creating happy readers. However, sometimes our story can make promises we’re not consciously aware of. Those promises are often formed in the subconscious expectations readers gather from the subtext.

“This story will have a happy/sad ending.”
“The character will/won’t get what they want by the end.”
“The character won’t get what they want, but they’ll get what they need.”
“The theme of X means Y will/won’t happen.”

The advice about keeping promises isn’t to say that we have to keep every promise created from the subtext. Sometimes an obstacle the reader didn’t see coming—death of a character, plot twist, etc.—is exactly what the story needs. But it’s good for us to be aware of these subtextual promises so we can choose how to integrate them into the story.

On some level, everything we write adds up to the big picture of the story in the reader’s mind. The most beautiful prose in the world won’t do any good if the story we think we’re telling isn’t anywhere close to what the reader is reading.

The more we’re aware of our story’s subtext, the better we can judge if readers are coming away with the impression we want. Even if that impression manipulates them into being surprised by things they didn’t see coming. *smile*

Are you able to see the subtext in your own stories? What about in others’ stories? How else have you seen subtext hide messages? What other ways could mismatched subtext lead to reader disappointment? Can you think of any examples of stories with “broken” subtext?

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17 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc August 13, 2013 at 9:22 am

OMG, I LOVE this!!! Chalk full of such great info!
I normally cannot always see the subtext in my work. I have fantastic, honest, critique partners that help me see through the mist of words.
I’m a little bit better at seeing the subtext in other work, but I’m certainly no savant. It’s tough to always see what’s right there in front of your face.
Hmmm, let me think of a story that let me down…
Can’t think of one at the moment, but my friend was very disappointed by Snow White And The Huntsman. She wanted Snow to end up with the prince and felt cheated that she took up with the (incredibly hot) huntsman instead. She said, that’s not how the story was supposed to be. I suppose in regard to something as famous as the Snow White tale, some people can’t give up the subtext that they originally embraced.
I, on the other hand, loved the movie and Snow’s choice.
Everybody’s different. That’s what makes the world so awesome 🙂
Thank you for an intriguing read!!! Sooo relevant!
Have a great week,
Tamara

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Jami Gold August 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Hi Tamara,

I agree–while I can see some of the subtext in my stories, I can’t see all of it. Yet another reason to be so grateful for beta readers and critique partners. 🙂

Interesting example! I saw that movie and can’t remember the story enough to remember if I had expectations one way or another. LOL! Yeah, I didn’t find it memorable apparently. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee August 13, 2013 at 5:47 pm

I actually believe authors can never see all the subtext in their own work. That would require complete, unbiased knowledge and comprehension of oneself and how that’s presented in the story…which would require 100% conscious mind, 0% subconscious.

I think that makes the problem clear. 😀

Now, authors can be aware of some subtext and some intentional subtext, and they can even have a goal of particular subtext. (My one dark urban fantasy series? Has an intended subtext that I know will turn some readers off.)

But other things will be unintentional. I’ve some readers of my Chronicles of Marsdenfel who keep spotting elements from psychology in the characters and in the overarching series. And those things are actually in the text—they aren’t stretching things at all to spot them. (And those things likely have much to do with the story’s unexpected fanclub in the adult male demographic.)

One thing I do these days is regularly post a WiP on Wattpad (…where I got over 100 new followers today… which is a ??? for me, because I was previously steady at ±20 per day). I can actually do that and receive reader feedback without having an urge to write-by-crowd—and I find the process useful.

See, some of those first readers of that WiP comment. Some just give me “stars”, saying they’re liking it. So in the least, I get “This story is working!” verification. But I also get comments about “???” spots (Oh, oops, I missed some transitions there) and on subtext and foreshadowing that the readers pick up on. When they notice things I was going for, that’s good. And sometimes they notice things I didn’t realize were there or that are contrary to what I was going for, so I can then keep those things in mind (or not) on the next pass.

That said, I know a lot of writers can’t include others in their writing room without getting stymied. So it’s not something I’d recommend another writer try unless you know you’re fine taking a story where you want and ignoring all reader comments unless they say something that helps you produce what you’re going for.

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Jami Gold August 13, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Hi Carradee,

I don’t disagree that it’s impossible for an author to be aware of all the subtext in their stories. 🙂 Even the best beta reader or editor won’t find it all, just because we all have different life experiences that will cause us to interpret subtext slightly differently. 🙂

Great point about how many writers don’t want to worry about this stuff while drafting. To some extent, myself included. 😀 I often don’t know my themes until the end of the first draft. LOL!

In which case, we’d want to keep these subtextual layers in mind while revising to ensure the story says what we want it to. Or at the very least, we can take our best stab at making the story create the impressions we want, and then the feedback we get from beta readers and the like will be more focused. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung August 13, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Ooh! Yay more stuff about subtext! 😀

Yes! I hate this problem about making wrong impressions and misleading subtext, though this topic is really fascinating at the same time. There have been times where I deliberately hid a thought that the character just had, or hid a facial expression or gesture that they just did, so that the readers will stay sympathetic to the character. I feel like I’m one of those biased reporters. I make sure I show as little of the character’s unsavory points as possible to make the readers like the person, lol. But at the same time, I need to keep some of the more harmless unsavory stuff in, so that the readers aren’t aware that I’m hiding something from them and therefore believe that the character is as likable and sympathetic as they seem. XD

Apart from deliberately hiding character thoughts, feelings, and gestures to make a character stay likable (or dislikable, if I don’t want the reader to start liking someone I don’t want them to like, lol), sometimes I have to remind myself to omit some statements that would convey the wrong message to the readers. E.g. if I’m trying to be cynical, snide, or satirical, I have to leave out my sudden sympathetic or kind comments, because that would jar with the general satirical mood and make it sound less harsh than I want it to. Similarly, if I want the narrative to be very compassionate, I want to make sure I cut out the mocking comments so that this tone of compassion doesn’t get diluted or ruined.

For character motivations, I haven’t run into any problems yet, but I do know that if I elaborate on a character’s motivations in a little more detail than usual, it will send certain signals to the reader and again, set one of the “main tones” of the story. So if I talk a lot about a character desperately wanting to be rich and famous, then the reader might assume that the story’s about monetary and social ambition. On the other hand, if I mention in some good detail how much a character loves her son and wants to protect him from future female suitors, then a reader may think that the story’s about possessive and jealous love. So I have to be careful that I don’t spend too much time on a specific character’s motivation if their motivation is not the main theme of my intended story. OR, I can go into their motivations if I spend even more time on the character’s motivation that is what I want my story to be chiefly about. Thus if I talk a lot about that jealous mother’s desire to fend off her son’s future admirers (yes, I’m talking about him as if he were a woman, lol), that’s okay only if I talk even more about the son’s desire to become a morally upright person, if I want my story’s main theme to be about achieving moral goodness (and not about possessive love).

An unrelated problem about character motivations is that sometimes my character has motivation X, which I think is very clear from the story, yet my reader thinks that he has motivation Y instead. >_< Don’t you hate those moments? I’ll have to find a way to make that motivation less ambiguous and more clear!

Ah, the issue of making unintended promises and not fulfilling them is another troublesome one. Once, I reread a story of mine (I was in the editing phase) when I saw to my dismay that the story seemed to say that X would happen, yet X didn’t happen, which was disappointing for me as a reader. Other times, I am aware of some promises I’m making that I’m not intending to keep. But then I think that readers shouldn’t be (too) pampered, and that “real life” doesn’t always go as we hope anyway. Of course, I think we should fulfill many of the readers’ wishes in the story, but I suppose it should be all right to surprise or disappoint them sometimes, as long as it’s not too often. For instance, you could have two characters who the readers believe will fall for each other, but in the end they remain platonic good friends, which is certainly a big blow and disappointment to readers. (But this is actually a relief for some other readers who are hoping to see no romance in this story. XD You know there are some very anti-romance readers out there, lol.) About this “looks like they’re going to fall in love” to “oh so they’re just platonic friends in the end” plot, again I’m trying to point out to readers that in “real life”, this kind of thing happens very often. Most of the time, when friends think that a certain two people would be perfect for each other, these two people end up never developing romantic feelings for each other, no matter how unbelievable and disappointing this is to their friends.

More about this “real life” thing: You know the implicit rule that in a mystery/ fantasy, every strange or mysterious object you see must play a part in the plot later? I think we should follow this rule at least most of the time, to satisfy the readers. Yet sometimes I’m going all “real life” on them again, as some of the mysterious things they encounter don’t amount to anything significant after all—because in “real life”, not everything that puzzles you turns out to be important. Of course, disappointing the reader on purpose, though often fun (lol! And so cruel too XD), can be dangerous in that it may make your reader so unhappy as to ultimately dislike your story. So it’s about balancing our desire to surprise the reader (even if unpleasantly) and the need to keep the reader at least reasonably content with the outcome.

On examples of stories with broken promises, there was one in The Hunger Games. (SPOILERS FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVEN’T READ ALL THREE BOOKS!) You know how Katniss mentions many times how Peeta has a talent for using words to sway people? I expected that he would use this special ability of his to do something really dramatic that saves the day (or contributes to saving the day), yet by the end of the book—he didn’t really use this ability, at least, not enough to my satisfaction. Thankfully, the many other strengths of this series still made me love it overall. : ) Another example was this story where a female character in the ancient times showed how independent and strong she was, setting up the expectation that she will continue to be so strong and impressive. Yet after those brief shows of bravery and strength, she keeps being saved by the hero and other characters. At the end of the story, she was also just under someone’s protection, and became a passive character. This expectation mismatch made some readers quite dissatisfied with the result. Fortunately this story still had many strengths, so it still managed to become an international bestseller, lol.

And of course, there’s the famous expectation-mismatch where a character doesn’t marry the character that the reader wants them to, lol. They might think that the heroine is so well-matched with this guy who she has such cute interactions with, and who has so many similar interests with her; and thus the reader feels tricked or cheated (or just plain upset) when she chooses the other guy who has no similar interests with her, or has less interesting or adorable interactions with her. There’s a very famous story where the heroine has such a great best friendship with this guy all through the book, but when he proposes to her, she rejects him; and later she falls in love with and marries a guy who appears very late in the book! I.e. the “random guy comes out of nowhere to steal the heroine” syndrome! XDD This frustrated a lot of my friends, lol. Yet this book still became an extremely popular story because of its other qualities, thankfully.

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Serena Yung August 13, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Oh one more note (sorry!):

How much you should be allowed to thwart a reader’s expectations does depend on which type of reader you are trying to please. For instance, on the romance plot again, the hero marries the girl that it was very obvious from the start that he was going to marry. For some readers, they would go, “Meh! I knew that all along. Cliche, cliche!” But for some other readers, they would go, “Oh yay!! I KNEW that he would choose her! We totally saw from the beginning what would happen but I’m still SO HAPPY that they DID indeed get together! 😀 😀 :D” (I’m usually the latter kind of reader, lol.)

So it really does depend on which type of reader you’re writing for.

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Jami Gold August 14, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Hi Serena,

Very true! Maybe readers used to the genre’s tropes would have one expectation, and readers from outside the genre would have others. Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold August 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Hi Serena,

Ooo, good point about how including a detail calls attention to it. So if we don’t want to call attention to something, we can’t include it. That said, as you mentioned, we have to include some negative details or else the character will be too perfect, like a Mary Sue. 🙂

I don’t feel too bad about leaving things out because if we’re writing in deep POV, the POV character won’t consciously notice all those things either. We rarely pay close enough attention to others to notice their facial tics, nervous swallows, etc. And we certainly don’t call them out on a conscious level in ourselves. So by leaving some of those details out, we actually being true to the deep POV. 😀

You’re right that one of the hardest areas to balance this properly is with dialogue or internal monologue. I’ve had to leave out some great comments because it would ruin the mood of the scene. *sigh* But we’re not trying to recreate real life with our writing (leaving in all the “um”s and “uh”s), just a close approximation. LOL!

Yes! Great observation that the motivations we include in the character’s internalizations call attention to them. Stated motivations are going to be seen as very important to that character.

My current WIP has an interesting situation with motivations. The heroine’s stated motivations aren’t bad, but they are a bit selfish. However, her actions, thoughts, and concerns are very unselfish. For example, she’s doing something because she cares about this other character, but her persona (Michael Hauge’s concept of Identity) sees herself as selfish, so she can’t admit her caring to herself. Er, yeah, it will be interesting to see if readers think she is selfish, or if they pick up on how unselfish her actions and concerns actually are. 🙂

Ooo, great example about platonic friends and unfulfilled expectations! I’m a romance author, so when I saw Pacific Rim, I noticed her ogling him and him being protective of her, and I expected the movie to end with them partnering up. They did partner up, but only as far as their robot. I felt cheated out of a kiss. LOL!

It wouldn’t surprise me if they were scripted to kiss by the end at some point during production, but that for marketing reasons (the assumption that boys wouldn’t want even a single kiss in their giant monster/robot movie, probably) they decided to take it out. If that wasn’t the case, why would they have included the ogling and protective-boyfriend teasing bits? So that was a case where, most likely, they revised the ending and didn’t remember to take out the earlier hints to that ending.

As you said, when we mention something, readers expect it to be relevant in some way. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Serena Yung August 14, 2013 at 11:28 pm

” I noticed her ogling him and him being protective of her, and I expected the movie to end with them partnering up. They did partner up, but only as far as their robot. I felt cheated out of a kiss. LOL!”

LOL! Well, there are girls (as well as guys, of course) who ogle people of the opposite gender a lot XD, and guys (as well as girls) who get very protective of others–which includes their opposite-gendered friends, without ever becoming romantically involved. So maybe this movie producer wanted to aim for a “real life” effect? I dunno. But it’s true that in a story, we expect it to be different from real life and we are used to any seemingly significant interactions between two opposite gendered, similar-aged characters to develop into romance, so we feel let down when it doesn’t. It’s also funny when you come from a romance story background and then are surprised when you get into “real life”, and realize that people don’t fall in love most of the time! :O

“That said, as you mentioned, we have to include some negative details or else the character will be too perfect, like a Mary Sue. :)”

Although sometimes I do want the character to be perfect–or even a saint, and I get disappointed when I discover that they’re not perfect after all. Yeah, sometimes I want to find someone to look up to in the story. 🙁 That’s why I adore characters like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. 😀 Yet I do understand that (I think) most readers don’t like reading about perfect, saintly characters as much as I do, lol, so I have to be aware of that in my writing.

“I don’t feel too bad about leaving things out because if we’re writing in deep POV, the POV character won’t consciously notice all those things either. We rarely pay close enough attention to others to notice their facial tics, nervous swallows, etc. And we certainly don’t call them out on a conscious level in ourselves. So by leaving some of those details out, we actually being true to the deep POV. :D”

True.

“My current WIP has an interesting situation with motivations. The heroine’s stated motivations aren’t bad, but they are a bit selfish. However, her actions, thoughts, and concerns are very unselfish. For example, she’s doing something because she cares about this other character, but her persona (Michael Hauge’s concept of Identity) sees herself as selfish, so she can’t admit her caring to herself. Er, yeah, it will be interesting to see if readers think she is selfish, or if they pick up on how unselfish her actions and concerns actually are. :)”

Ah, this sounds like a familiar life situation. Hard to decide whether that’s selfish or unselfish though. Hey I recently thought of a similar scenario, where someone does something out of purely altruistic motives (or a desire to help or benefit another person), yet the ACTIONS that they do can be seen as manipulative. I.e. they do something out of pure goodwill, but after doing it, they realize that that action was kind of manipulative as well—and so they’re unsure of what their real motive is. Or maybe it was a mixed motive. Or maybe they really were being sincere, yet the action could lead to manipulative gains for them as well. (And it disturbs them that they REALIZE that these actions in themselves can give them such gains.) Lol, oh the confusions XD But these ambiguous motivations are very interesting to think about.

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SBibb August 14, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Very useful post. I found it interesting, and it’s something I want to be aware of in my writing. I’ve recently been paying more attention to the character interactions and what it implies between the characters. When I read through a manuscript I was working on, I was surprised at some of the unintended implications from them, and wound up cutting certain bits of dialogue. In a sense, I think it helped avoid some of those unexpected implications in the sub-text.

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Jami Gold August 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Hi SBibb,

Yes, we can’t catch every aspect of subtext in our work, but simply being aware that subtext exists can help us craft stories with elements that already line up. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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