Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guest Post by David Baboulene on Subtext

David Baboulene is a published author of two humorous books, two children’s books and The Story Book - an academic work on story theory. He also has three film production deals, two in Hollywood and one in the UK.

He works as a story consultant with training and development organisations, aspiring and established writers and producers. He is also working at Brighton University on his Ph.D. on the critical importance of subtext to a story’s power. David writes extensively on his subject, including his monthly column in Writing Magazine and Writers' News.

Welcome David and thank you for being here today!

Subtext – The Most Critical Tool in the Story-Teller’s Box

What is subtext? Why is it important? Author and story consultant DAVID BABOULENE explains why subtext is fundamental to a story’s quality.

All writers are told that subtext is the ‘untold’ or ‘underlying’ story, and that stories must be delivered in subtext. Make no mistake - this is true. Without subtext, you literally have no story. However, what the great and the good fail to tell us is how in the world we are supposed to go about telling an ‘untold’ story? How do we bury our story, and still tell it, apparently without mentioning it?

So they give us examples. A character takes a girl by the hands, looks her in the eyes and says, ‘I love you.’ And the audience gasps, because they know that he’s about to leave her for another woman. This is all well and good, but still doesn’t help us understand how to deliver our stories ‘in subtext’.

What we need to know is what writers do to generate subtext.

Creating Subtext

Subtext results from what I call ‘knowledge gaps’. When you craft into your story a difference in the knowledge held by different participants, you introduce a knowledge gap – and simultaneously create intrigue and engagement. This is most easily expressed from the audience or reader perspective:

If the audience knows more or less than any character in the story,

you have story delivery in subtext.

So there are two basic forms of subtext, based on whether the audience knows more or less than a character:

Revelation Subtext

Take a mystery story. We follow the detective through all the events, we see all the clues, and we try to predict whodunit. Then the detective arrests the blonde, and we think, ‘Wha-what? The blonde? But she’s innocent! She’s the victim!’ and our minds go racing back through all that has gone before to try and establish what the detective spotted that we didn’t. The audience knows less than the detective, and revelation subtext is built into the story.

 1 - Revelation Subtext

Privilege Subtext

As the detective bravely climbs the dark staircase towards the attic, his candle blows out and a chill runs through us all, because we know that there is an axe-wielding maniac waiting for him behind the door at the top. Knowledge gaps whereby the audience knows more than a character generate Privilege Subtext.

   2 – Privilege Subtext

Within these two types there are at least ten mechanisms for introducing knowledge gaps. By introducing a mysterious character; by using a subplot to influence another plot; by raising questions in the mind of the audience (particularly ‘I know what the protagonist wants - how is he going to get it?’); by playing on audience pre-conceptions (just because he looks like a policeman doesn’t mean he’s not a criminal...); subterfuge (a character with a secret, an alter-ego, lies and deceit are all wonderful examples of subtext);

Other less common types of subtext exist, using implication and suggestion, metaphor and allegory, and a character’s subconscious aims, but we are best to leave these for another day.

The more the audience has to work to make up the story for themselves in the knowledge gaps, the finer the story is perceived to be, so make it your business to understand subtext. The quantity, depth and persistence of knowledge gaps in your story directly relate to how well your story engages an audience.

This is my specialist area and the subject of my PhD thesis. If you would like more information do please get in touch and I will send you the relevant chapter from The Story Book.


You can find David on Facebook
and his tour page with UK and Beyond Book Tours

Look for my review of THE STORY BOOK on the 26th. For more great story tips follow David's blog.


Cherie Reich said...

Wonderful guest post! I must admit I haven't consciously thought of subtext when writing, but with this explanation, I can see it within my writing. I'll definitely keep THE STORY BOOK in mind to read.

Elana Johnson said...

I am printing this right now! It's exactly what I need!

Lydia Kang said...

I never thought of this before. Wow, thanks!

Alleged Author said...

I love the whole idea of diagramming subtext. I have difficulty coming up with subplots. Great interview!

Anonymous said...

What a clear explanation, makes it so easy to spot, but wonder if I could create it - LOL. I think I've given up on ever being a writer, death to a 5th grade notion...


Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Great interview and interesting topic! I totally get the importance, but need a lot more specific "how-to" rules before I think I could pull it off! Maybe I'll have to read the book :)

David Baboulene said...

Quick note to thank you for the kind comments here - Susanna got the subtext *I* was trying to deliver without mentioning... ;-) Seriously, there are a dozen types of subtext - maybe I'll be invited back to go through them...?!

And thank you so much to Kerri for being such an amazing host and being so kind to me and my work. I think I'm in love...