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-common. Watch, 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?
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.