Context, Text, and Subtext: What They Are and How They Help Storytelling

september-c-fawkesIn writing tips, we talk about text a lot. But I feel like we don’t talk enough about context and subtext in this industry. Both are vital to good storytelling and often misunderstood or even mixed up. So today I wanted to go over and define the differences between context, text, and subtext, and explain how they work.

Context

Often when we think of context, we think of things like the date a work was published, who it was written by, or the climate of the time. But context is very important within your fictive universe as well. Context in this sense is all the grounding and guiding information that the audience needs, such as who the characters are, where they are, what time of day it is, etc. Context can also be any other additional information the audience needs to interpret and accurately understand what is happening in the story.

Here is an example of a passage without context.

Mack shut the Hummer’s hood. “Should be fine now,” he said to John.

 “Great. Thanks, Karl.” John got in the driver’s seat and stuck his key in the ignition.

Why did John call Mack, Karl? We have no idea. There is nothing in the text to help us interpret and accurately understand what his motives are. Is it an accident? Intentional? A nickname? Is this a typo or mistake the author made?

This passage lacks context.

Learn how to write subtext and context well.

This can happen when the writer is trying to make their story mysterious, exciting, or engaging by leaving room for readers to come to their own conclusions and interpretations (which is what subtext is for). Sometimes it can happen from trying to follow the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule too religiously.

When the audience lacks context, the story becomes very vague, which is a problem for several reasons. (See my post on vague vs. ambiguous.) If there is no context, there is almost no investment in the story, because if the audience doesn’t have access to any clear meaning, they are unable to care about what happens. The only time where a lack of context works is when writing teasers.

Here is the earlier example with context:

Mack shut the Hummer’s hood. “Should be fine now,” he said to John.

“Great. Thanks, Karl.” John got in the driver’s seat. He loved calling people the wrong name, just to get under their skin. It afforded him a power over others that was subtle enough to get away with.

 John stuck his key in the ignition.

In this example, the context is brought in through telling, but in general context can be conveyed in several other ways, through dialogue, through character reactions, through description, or validating the reader. How it should be conveyed depends on what it is and what the scene calls for.

Text

Text is the easiest one of the three to understand, because it is what we often focus on the most. The text is the written part of the story, what happens and what is stated on the page. It is everything you see that is not implied.

Now, you could look at my example above and say that I added text–because I did. But in storytelling, I would argue that story-context is within the text, just as subtext is–after all, we need to have text in order to have context or subtext.

Subtext

SUBTEXT: writing details beneath the surface

Subtext is what we mean when we talk about “reading between the lines.” The “sub” refers to underlying. It is underneath the text.

It is different than context, in that context helps us interpret and understand the story, and subtext happens when the story is bigger than what is on the page.

Once the reader has some stability, some grounding with context, you can make them a participator in the story through subtext.

Here is an example of subtext:

Robert, not bothering to raise his hand, spouted out an inappropriate joke.

 “Robert, I don’t want to hear that kind of language in my class,” Mr. Henderson said, but the ends of his lips twitched up. “That’s very offensive.” He failed to suppress a full-blown grin. 

Notice we understand what is happening in the story (context). The subtext is that although Mr. Henderson acts like he disproves of Robert’s joke, his body language tells us he thought it was funny.

Subtext happens through implications. It also uses contradictions of one sort or another (what Mr. Henderson says is at odds with what his body does). Subtext happens when the audience comes to a conclusion that explains those contradictions.

Like context (and text), subtext is critical for good storytelling. Subtext is used to create unreliable narrators, blind characters, ulterior motives, powerful revelations, successful mysteries, even humor, and more. While a story without context is inaccessible, a story with no subtext is flat.

Want to learn more about SUBTEXT? Here are two powerful articles: ONE & TWO.

september-c-fawkes_3Sometimes September scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. She works as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author while penning her own stories, holds an English degree, and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Find out more about September here, hang with her on social media, or visit her website to follow her writing journey and get more writing tips.

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This entry was posted in Characters, Description, Dialogue, Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Context, Text, and Subtext: What They Are and How They Help Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 11-22-2018 | The Author Chronicles

  2. I’ll echo what Becca said–subtext is a beautiful element that all writers should strive to understand and use, especially because if it is missing the story will seem flat. Readers will not connect as deeply as they could have.

    Great post!

  3. Pingback: Context, Text, and Subtext: What They Are and How They Help Storytelling ~ WRITERS HELPING WRITERS® – Write F#©kn' Now

  4. Thanks for this breakdown, September. Subtext is very underutilized, imho. It’s one of those things that adds tremendously to a story, and its absence leaves one of those nagging holes, where you know something’s missing even if you can’t identify it.

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