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August 13, 2013

Do You Know Your Story’s Subtext?

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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What do you think?

19 Comments on "Do You Know Your Story’s Subtext?"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

Carradee
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… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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.

SBibb

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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