Elevate Your Story Through the Sublime – and Subliminal – Use of Sub-Text

All stories have sub-text.  No exceptions.  Because life itself is riddled with it.

The real issue for writers, then – the real opportunity – becomes this: will anyone notice?  Will the sub-text of your story contribute to a sense of tension, emotional layering and expositional opportunities?

An under-appreciated truth: in a world full of genre-based fiction and character-driven mainstream stories, sub-text is perhaps the most differentiating and inherently powerful aspect of storytelling.

If you’re looking for an edge, an advanced tip, a “secret the bestselling authors don’t want you to know”… this is it.  Master this and you’re immediately playing in a league above the norm.

To not proactively address the issue of sub-text with the intention of harnessing it’s power in your story is like a musician ignoring harmony.  Because there is so much inherent potential above, below and between the layers of the main melody-line.

Without the use of differentiating, compelling sub-text in your stories, you are singing a cappella.  And when was the last time you heard that on the Top-100 list?

You don’t have to completely understand sub-text to actually use it to your advantage as a writer of fiction.  Because sub-text is the offspring of setting, characterization, backstory and dramatic exposition.

Sub-text in your story is like stuff growing in your yard.  You can seed it and care for it, or you can let it spring up on its own.  Either way, it defines the street appeal of your home, either adding to or compromising what you’re going for.

That said, sub-text is always an available layer to make your story richer, deeper and more compelling.  The evolved, professional writer gets this.

Of course, knowing what sub-text even means is the starting point. 

So let’s go there.

You already know that you must set your story somewhere.  That your story unfolds in a world of your creation, either real or surreal.  

In a setting.  A location, a timeframe, a culture or society, even within a family or a workplace dynamic of some kind.

But it is more than setting, too.  Sub-text often equates to, and facilitates, theme.  It’s fair to say that setting becomes theme when proactively applied as sub-text.

When you make choices about setting, physical and cultural, you are choosing your sub-text.  Because these choices apply certain pressures – forces – that define and influence what happens within the settings and themes you’ve chosen.

To optimize sub-text, the writer elects to make the story about the setting, time, place or social context by making those pressures and forces actual factors in how the story unfolds.

Remember the movie “Witness,” with Harrison Ford? 

The witness to the crime that anchors the plot was Amish, a belief system that applies significant pressure to the choices of those who adopt it, and defines how the outside world views those who adopt it.  And thus, that sub-text was key to the story.

Without that particular sub-text, “Witness” is just another mystery.  One without eight (1885) Academy Award nominations and two wins. 

In “The Help,” both book and film, sub-text was the most significant thing about the entire story – the racial biases, norms and inequities of the chosen time and place.  When Kathryn Stockett set out to write this story – it’s entirely possible the term “sub-text” never entered her mind — she knew her story was about this thematic issue, and everything that happens character-wise, and plot-wise, connects to and is informed by it.

Imagine that story unfolding today, anywhere.  It might work, but it would be a completely different dramatic paradigm.  This next Sunday you’ll see the fruit of Stockett’s choice, beyond the tens of millions of copies she’s sold – Academy Awards up the wazoo. 

Remember Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill”?  Pure sub-text.  Without that southern setting from the 1950s, it would all be old news.  When a novel uses sub-text to define the times, that’s seizing an inherent opportunity beyond the compelling nature of its plot.

“The Davinci Code”… duh. 

In fact, when you look closely at iconic bestsellers and critically-acclaimed movies, you’ll see sub-text as the essence-in-commonWatch, read and learn.

Examples are everywhere.

In romances, sub-text is often the social barriers that separate lovers.  The era of the story, and the social norms of the culture, defines what can happen and what can’t.  Which is the sub-text, if not the theme itself.

In mysteries, sub-text is often police corruption, sexual deviation, corporate or political greed and self-service, or a landscape of human darkness springing from jealously, sociopathology, opportunism, fear or hatred.

In science fiction, sub-text might be the impending death of a planet, or a post-apocalyptic setting in which survival is defined by the environment, or the presence of non-human intelligence.  Technology versus humanity.

Every story has sub-text. 

You have a choice – you can manage it, or allow it to manage your story for you.  But know this: without throwing a lasso around it, followed by a harness, it’ll run wild and perhaps run away, rather than leading you somewhere it might not otherwise go.

The Optimization of Sub-Text

As story developers, we are always making decisions in the realm of setting, character arc and dramatic tension.  So it is easy to overlook or take for granted the role of sub-text in how our stories play out.

Sub-text is conceptual (one of the Six Core Competencies), in that your choice of setting or underlying story forces creates the compelling X-factor of the story.  A love story set in rural Iowa farmland… you better be Jonathan Franzen or you’re bucking the odds. 

A love story set in a nunnery… that’s a lasso that can make you famous.

What was the sub-text in some of your favorite novels?

Can you describe the sub-text in your current novel or screenplay, and in doing so, is it adding impact and weight to your story?

Personal Newsflash

I’m excited to announce that I’m now represented by the Andrea Hurst & Associates Literary Agency, with three submittable new projects and a backlist still alive and kicking. 

Landing a new agent is a Big Deal.  My wish for you is that, if you haven’t already, you soon experience the sense of purpose and hope that having the right agent brings to your work, and your life.

Thanks for reading Storyfix.com. I’m here to help you get there. L.




Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

28 Responses to Elevate Your Story Through the Sublime – and Subliminal – Use of Sub-Text

  1. Yes, now we can optimize both Concept/Precept and Theme in the Six Core Competencies. They need to be aligned as do all the SCCs.

    Being aware of sub-text, what it is and what it does, is part of the Competencies — the What you do. It’s your (author’s) art/creativity that makes it great, and that’s How you do it.

    Now go out and write something great.

  2. Hey Larry

    Congratulations on landing the new agent! Way to go!


  3. Donna Lodge

    Larry, awesome news :
    – represented by the Andrea Hurst & Associates Literary Agency. Landing a new agent is a Big Deal.
    – with three submittable new projects and a backlist still alive and kicking.

    Congratulations! You’ve earned it.

  4. Great points about sub-text. This is the tool that gives writers the ability to transform a regular story into a good or great story. They can pack a punch that they normally wouldn’t have. More bang for your buck, if you will. There are tons of ways to explore it in fiction, it’s just a matter of finding the particular vehicle that fits your story best. The wrong one can detract, but the right one will leave critics raving.

  5. My last book, which garnered a second-place award from RRWA, was set post-Civil War when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized so many minorities. My protagonist was a woman who loved another woman, and they knew they could be targeted (and were). The subtext of the fear they lived with pervaded the whole story and was the underpinning of several crucial decisions they made. One of the women was a widow with a young son, and she was torn as to whether to follow her heart or marry the town doctor to keep her son safe.

    Without that subtext, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as strong as it was. As Larry says, “Sub-text is always an available layer to make your story richer, deeper and more compelling.” Subtext can save an otherwise ho-hum plot and can be planned ahead of time.

    Congratulations, Larry, on acquiring representation! That’s a thrilling and well-deserved achievement.

  6. First–Congratulations, Larry. Good topic for this post, too.

    I’m not 100% confident about subtext yet, but I’ll say that in Call of the Wild by Jack London, the subtext was man and dog vs. nature; surviving in a hostile environment. Put the gold prospectors in sunny, warm California and the fear of freezing to death 6-9 months out of the year leaves and deflates the tension as well as greatly reduces the necessity of sled dogs as pack animals and transportation.

    I believe my WIP’s subtext is a subtle culture class between urban and rural settings. The MC has forsaken his rural roots and become “urbanized.” He’s forced back to his small hometown to deal with a sick father and thinks he can fit back into life with his old friends the way it was thirty years ago, but he’s become more mistrustful of everyone due to his urbanization, and the rural folks now consider him an outsider for leaving. They all deal with trust issues and the MC is never quite sure who he can trust right up to the end of the story (thanks in large part to the antagonist’s manipulations of events).

    The main plot line is the MC is trying to help a widowed neighbor keep her farm, but he stumbles upon a conspiracy that affects his hometown. He ends up fighting to stay alive when the antagonist decides the MC threatens to foil his plans and must be killed.

    Am I on the right track? Is that a valid subtext, anyone?

  7. Olga Oliver

    Congrats Larry on your new representation. Must be a terrific boost.

    Thanks for the sub-text info. Strange that so few craft books carry this information. I have two books on sub-text. One is so academic that you slams the book closed after 50 pages. Book two is titled Writing Subtext: What lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. She addresses subtext for screenwriters and writers. Fabulous book! After the first read of this book, subtext becomes friendly. I highly recommend it.

  8. @Chris — you’ve certainly got sub-text in play, but from the plot description I don’t see how it prominently plays a “role” in the story. So your challenge, I think, is to elevate your story by making that class distinction visceral and, more importantly, actually become a catalyst in both the plot and the character arcs. Tough stuff, but I’m betting you can deepen the stakes and the emotional ride by looking for ways to bring this in. Thanks for getting it, and for contributing here. L.

    @Olga – thanks for the reference, we can never have too many resources.

  9. Martha

    Larry — I’m thrilled to hear of your affiliation with Andrea. Congratulations!
    I just finished reading the Seger book on subtext and it’s one of the best, although few craft books address this issue. Noah Lukeman in “The First Five Pages” has a section on “Show Don’t Tell” that illustrates the importance of showing, which, to me, is one way into understanding subtext, how to think about it and how to bring it into your own work. The third resource I’ve used is Robert McKee’s “Story”, which has a short section on subtext. Subtext, he points out, is critically important in movie scripts because action and dialog are the major tools movie makers have to create emotion. They have no other way to tell the viewer except to show through action and dialog. “If you have no subtext”, McKee says, “your story dies like a rat in the road.”

  10. @Chris: I checked out your blog. I like your neat, logical, yet passionate, style of writing, and your story sounds intriguing. You shouldn’t have any trouble following Larry’s advice. Let us know when your story gets published – either mainstream or independent. Self-publishing, too, is getting huge. Serious writers have several options nowadays.

  11. This is really interesting. I’m going in for a second read through now to make sure I got everything. Good job.

  12. This is a lot to think about and digest. I hope I’m doing it okay in my novels. I try, but after reading this, I’m wondering if I could still kick it up a level. Thanks.

  13. First, congrats on the new agent. Second – great post. Is it fair to say that subtext arises from both the character’s past experiences and the story developing around them? Eager to hear your thoughts. LL

  14. I’ve been trying to incorporate this. Mine is a time travel romance and the theme is “what is home?” since the heroine (who goes back to 1834) must decide when are true home lies, in 1834 or the present. So I’ve got many threads that tie into the theme of what is home to different characters. But wouldn’t the subtext be something a little different? I’m thinking it’s the fact that she’s not from 1834 and the hero doesn’t know it until 3/4 of the way through Act Two… ??

    Great post. I love digging deeper into anything I do…

  15. Thanks for the advice, Larry. I’ll work on deepening the stakes as you suggest.

    Nann- Thanks for visiting my blog and for your kind words.

  16. @Lake – sub-text is both challenging and exciting, and for the same reasons: it comes from all kinds of sources. Backstory, as you suggest, is certainly a good source. The higher level answer to “where do I find sub-text?” might be this: anything that influences the story, either plot or characters, is sub-text. Which means, our old tapes, background, parenting, childhood… our politics, the nature of the society (certain the sub-text for women in different in, say, Iran than it is in Los Angeles)… weather… who is in the room… all of it becomes bus-text when it becomes a “force” or pressure within the story.

    Thanks for contributing here, Lake, always good to have you. L.

  17. @ Angela — I love time travel stories. I’m thinking they’re hard to right (yes?) but very rewarding at the same time. As for your question, one source of sub-text (see my response to Lake, above) is the social norms that exist in 1834 versus today. Those norms define what “home” is like… the politics of the day included prejudices and injustices that aren’t prevelant today (sexism, racism, elitism, cowboy justice, etc.), which creates two very different sub-text landscapes for your story. Because plot exerts “pressure” on the story, as well (or at least it certainly should), it, too, becomes a source of sub-text. Your story sounds like a great vehicle to blend them (plot-driven sub-text, and social-driven context). Simply asking the question indicates that you have an awareness of this opportunity, so I’m betting that as you continue to chart the course of this story, sub-text will play a big role. Good on you. Pls keep me posted, wishing you great success with it. L.

  18. Thanks Larry! I think you’re right. A lot of those pressures is why she thinks she must return to her own time, and does, only to realize she made a big mistake. They are hard to write, but a lot of fun, because I just love fish-out-of-water tales…. It’s a lot of fun to write contrasts…

  19. Sammi

    Two of my favourite movies, Casino and Scarface, are actually very similar in this regard. Both movies have the same theme, namely, that being greedy will always be your downfall. Their settings reflect this greed–Casino taking place in Las Vegas during the 1970’s and 80’s, and Scarface in Miami in the 80’s. The protagonists of these stories take their cues from their environment–we see Tony Montana going from cheap shirts to expensive pastel suits, for example.

    In Casino, the setting itself echoes the protagonist Ace Rothstein’s decline and fall. After Ace loses the casino he’s poured his heart and soul into, the mob-backed Vegas itself stumbles and falls. In the end, greed destroyed the city, just like it nearly destroyed Ace.

    Still trying to figure out what the subtext is in my own WIP.

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  21. Larry, I’m just beginning to learn that I know this already – it’s buried in my brain, elusive, and sometimes flows out onto the page. Maybe knowing and understanding more about it will help me actually use it on purpose.

    To me, any Jodi Piccoult novel uses this masterfully.

  22. Thanks for an eloquent, useful essay. You’ve made me look twice at my current project. I’m reconstructing a novel I was in love with, that I lost a half finished draft in 1995. I knew the plot already. So I’m not fishing for plot on this draft and I’m applying more of your planning techniques because there is a mystery plot involved too among the characters. Mysteries I have to know the ending in order to plot toward it.

    What you said about the subtext really applies to this one – its setting is a colony planet. It’s science fiction, my take on the traditional Dinosaur Planet classic with a different, more environmentalist theme. In some ways the colonists dealing with the dinosaurs is a reflection of people having to live in areas where there are tigers or lions. The best defense isn’t always “kill anything bigger than humans that might eat us.” So it’s a commentary on sharks too – for every shark that takes a bite out of humans we eat millions of them. I’m not saying we should feed people to sharks. More that it’d make sense to recognize we won that one and we’re definitely the planet’s dominant big predator, we can and should stop short of rendering all competition for our steaks and fish extinct.

    Very different message from Jurassic Park or Anne McCaffrey’s “Dinosaur Planet” or any other treatment of that classic setting. Of course I have a good original cast too. The memorable characters are still hanging in my head a decade after I first worked on the book and the less memorable ones have washed away – so I’ll be building a new, more interesting cast and drop anyone who’s too pretentious, boring or drippy in favor of wit and strong personality.

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  24. syedasanilashah

    is there any story on which all sources of sublimity are applied?

  25. @eyedasanilashah — thanks for commenting, in the form of this question. Not sure I understand what you’re going for here, as “all sources” eludes me. I don’t think that the “source” of subliminal stimulation, intention and movitation was be quantified or, in some cases, even described. I do think that an author who is trying to say something beyond (and behind) the story they are telling is harnessing the power of subliminal narrative, and while I can’t think of a successful story that doesn’t do it, I also can’t think of one that taps into “all sources” that might be available. The Davinci Code, perhaps, but that’s just an opinion. Hope this helps, not sure I’ve answered your question adequately, but I tried. Larry

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