“The Help”: Recognizing the Screaming Power of Narrative Sub-Text

We all know what sub-plot means.  It’s what’s going on in a story that isn’t – yet – directly connected to, or dependent upon, the main plotline.

Like a guy getting newly married to a younger woman who gets kidnapped by his not-so-young ex-wife.  Escaping the kidnapping is the primary dramatic plotline.  The evolution of his pending marriage – indeed, his relationship with his new bride – is the sub-plot.  Because she’s hitting the clubs while he’s locked in a warehouse.

But sub-text… that’s a 202 term in a 101 world.

Sub-text is almost completely synonymous with context.  The only difference is, in fact, the difference between “sub” and “con” – context is everywhere, including center stage.  Sub-text is completely invisible and unacknowledged, yet it drives everything… contextually.

Sounds confusing, I’ll grant you.  Let me try to clarify.  And yes, this is 202-level stuff… stuff you’ll want to know and master when you step up to a professional level of fiction writing. 

Because sub-text is absolutely essential.

Sub-text is the state and nature of the world in terms of what is going on in a story.  It is what drives and affects the characters.  It is the unspoken meaning and intention behind what is actually spoken. 

The exact same scene, word for word, but written with different sub-text (largely driven by where the scene appears in the story, which is contextual), would read – or, be interpreted – completely differently.

Example: the kidnapped guy and his gun-toting ex are having a conversation about the past.  If this is pre-kidnapping (maybe they’ve met for coffee), this would be one flavor of sub-text: their past is context for everything they say to each other.

But if this is post-kidnapping, then any conversation between them has a completely new sub-text, even if it seems warm and polite, which may include manipulation, thinly veiled threats, sarcastic and ironic bitterness and barely-masked fear in a way the first sub-text would not.

In “The Help,” each of the four parts offers the reader a new sub-text for the scenes within it.  This is basic story architecture, but at a 202 level.  As such, it’s not coincidental that the missions of each of the four parts – set-up, response, attack, and resolution – are, in fact, descriptors of the sub-text itself.

The mission of each of the four parts of a story is to shift the context, and therefore the sub-text, to another level: the sub-text resulting from a set-up context to a responsive one… from a responsive one to an attacking one… and from an attacking one to a resolving one.

The Four Sub-texts of “The Help”

In Part 1 of “The Help,” there is no solution to the problem of racism or the specific lives of the character.  None of that is on the table… yet.  The sub-text of everything is: this is just how things are.  And it sucks.

In part 2 of “The Help,” the sub-text shifts.  Because now, everything is contextually different, thanks to the emergence of Miss Skeeter’s book project as a very real possibility.  That project becomes the primary source of dramatic energy, tension and momentum, via the posing of the central dramatic questions it poses: will the book get written?  If it does, what consequences will come of it?

The scenes in Part 2 read very much the same as the scenes in Part 1, but the context is different, because the sub-text is different.  Now, each character has thoughts and considers options in relation to their awareness of the possibility of their participation in Skeeter’s book.  They look at their situations differently than before, even though the dynamics of their relationships and the nature of their conversations are the same.  They are hearing and evaluating everything through fresh eyes and keener sensitivity – indeed, this is hope emerging in their lives – and considering the possible risks and rewards of participating.

In Part 3 of “The Help,” the context shifts yet again – there are real life and death consequences to consider now – and once again the sub-text is something new.  Now, each participant is in, they are past the point of no return, and their own tolerance of the injustices of their lives – or, if you’re on the bigoted side of that fence, the threat and utter outrage of what seems to be happening – takes on a new urgency and danger. 

In Part 4 of “The Help,” after the Second Plot Point revelation of Minnie’s Big Secret and the potential consequences of Miss Hilly’s reaction to it being made public, yet again there is an edgy new context, and therefore a behind-the-dialogue sub-text that permeates each and every exchange.

This “behind the dialogue” perspective is a good way to recognize – and deliver as a writer – the power of sub-text.

Another Familiar Example of Sub-Text

Remember the film, “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nicholson is having lunch with Tom Cruise and Demi Moore at an outdoor table in Cuba, discussing the recent death of one of Nicholson’s men?  That scene is dripping with raw sub-text amidst otherwise polite and pointed conversation, from comments about the meal to the obvious deference and disdain between the characters.  Other than a moment when Nicholson goes straight at it, the sub-text is never acknowledged yet is the loudest voice at the table.  It drives the meaning, implication and intention of everything these characters say in that scene.

Watch it, recognize it.  In fact – and this is so cool – you can watch it RIGHT HERE via Youtube.  Just be sure to come back when you’re done.  See you in six minutes.

Now, as you continue to study “The Help,” see how you’re now suddenly aware of the power of sub-text as a dramatic force, and how it shifts as the story moves along.

Please consider my book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” to learn more about the principles of story architecture and the contextual milestones, missions and forces that make them universal and effective.  It’s both 101 and 202 in nature, so there’s good news for all writers looking for an edge.


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Filed under "The Help" Deconstruction series

9 Responses to “The Help”: Recognizing the Screaming Power of Narrative Sub-Text

  1. spinx

    I´ve always helped mylef creating the mental image that subtext is simply KNOWING beyond the frame (shot, scene, whatever you want to use).

  2. @spinx — well said. Sub-text is a superior point of view on the part of the reader, which of course, isn’t an accident, it’s a deliberate outcome stemming from the author’s secure awareness of where the story is going.

  3. Another thought — sub-text is the elephant in the room. The unspoken resentment, fear, memory, or truth that colors everything, even when nobody wants to acknowledge it or pretends they don’t get it.

  4. Brilliant! Probably more important than anyone knows. It’s the texture of the food, the ‘ethnic’ spices that sing in your mouth when you take a bite, the cultural expectations and memories all in that bite.

  5. Thanks for the “elephant in the room” analogy, Larry. I now understand exactly what subtext is. THANK YOU!!

  6. spinx


    Your second comment, Larry!

    That is exactly what I have been thinking, and more. Subtext is also the action that takes place behind the pages, knowing future events before they happen……

    It certainly can mean a lot of things. (I´m starting to like subtext)

  7. From Larry — a great way to feel the power of sub-text is to notice it in real life. Have you ever had a polite conversation with someone you don’t care for, which is nearly word for word the same chit-chat conversation you have had with someone you really like? Which has the most dramatic tension? How do they make you feel, and how are those feeling different?

    Sub-text defines, to some extent, almost everything we experience in real life. From going to a party with a headache (sub-text) to having just been told a publisher is going to accept your book (sub-text that lasts), this is the stuff of deeper, edgier fiction, and we get a lesson in it every day. L.

  8. Due to a busy schedule, I just got around to reading the deconstructing”The Help” series and thought it was most instructive. I read the book while on vacation last month and was able to read it over the course of only two days. Might have been a record for me. If I was at home reading it, I probably would have stayed up till 4 a.m. a few times, unable to put it down, over the course of a week.

    Everything Larry said was spot on regarding story structurein “The Help.” Reading this series of posts in one sitting drove home the points he was making about the Plot Points, context, subcontext, story structure, four acts, inciting incident, everything.

    Keep doing this if you can, Larry. Yours is one of the single most helpful blogs about writing I’ve come across. Deconstructions rock! So does your book, “Story Engineering.”

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