HOW TO STATE THE UNSTATED
HOW TO STATE THE UNSTATED
Part of the ThrillerFest week—organized by the International Thriller Writer's organization (ITW)—is an event known as CraftFest. Luminaries of the thriller-genre are asked to give workshops on various subjects, and I was asked to propose a class.
I decided to go for something that I'd been looking into, something known as "subtext."
Subtext is perhaps one of the least understood (and more ellusive) elements of writing. It is basically what is in a text but has not been stated explicitly.
Usually, subtext is considered part of the "art" of writing, and there isn't much written about it in terms of the "craft." But I'd set myself to look into more closely, and found a way to tackle the subject in a way that can be more easily understood, even consider it part of the craft.
Here I'm sharing with you the hand-out, a short article for those who are interested in how to state the unstated.
The “Dark Matter” of Story
Surely, you’ve heard of this before—of the term “Subtext.”
What if I tell you that Subtext is as important as Plot and Structure? Would you believe it? Maybe not, but that’s exactly what this article is all about.
What is subtext?
Some call it the “iceberg effect.” Others, “writing between the lines.” Edward Stanton, the film-maker who did Toy Story and Wall-E, said: “It is the well organized absence of information that draws us in."
For me, Subtext is the Art and Craft of how to state the unstated. But how can that be as important as Plot or Structure, you ask?
In practice, we tend to be aware of Story Structure when we look at its “spine,” that is, the location of its main events, turning points, pinch points, climax, resolution. Plot, on the other hand, is the sequence in which we place the scenes within a story. (Subtext: why we leave other scenes out.)
In other words, Subtext is what happens behind the scenes, between events, but also before and after the story. Most important of all, though, and just as it occurs with the universe’s dark matter, Subtext is what defines how a story moves, why our characters behave the way they do, but mostly, what they haven’t said or failed to do.
Funnily enough, when we continue revising, cutting, or adding, we are in fact searching for the true story behind our story as much as the best way to say what we are trying to say. At the end of the day, though Subtext is what we, writers, are trying to tell to our readers without saying it out loud.
Therefore, for me, it is surprising how something as important as Subtext has not been analyzed the way it deserves.
Subtext is the proverbial elephant in the dark room that everyone mentions but few have ever been able to describe, or when they do, then each in their own way and usually in very general terms. And, just like it happens with the universe’s dark matter—which comprises about 87% of the universe’s mass—Subtext is the hidden content that makes the story worth reading.
1) Subtext by Denial: The purpose of Subtext by Denial is to omit information, facts or thoughts, to leave them unstated. On purpose.
When we deny information to our readers, when we purposefully hide information from them, we create a gap, an emptiness that will have to be filled, something that will raise questions begging for answers; in short, denial creates tension, and mystery, and suspense.
When we start a scene in medias res, we make readers wonder what came before, and when we stop a scene before it actually ends—i.e. leaving early—we will make readers wonder what is to come.
Similarly, if we don’t let a reader see what a particular character is thinking, we will make readers wonder why characters are doing what they are doing. And when we deny our characters certain information (for example, by switching POV), we create a distance between what they know about each other, and what they believe about each other, thus generating assumptions that may or may not be true.
More tension, more expectation.
2) Subtext by Contradiction: When we come up with certain behavior that is the total opposite of what is expected, we create contradictions. Contradictions happen when a character does something that he/she should not have done in a given situation.
A killer who saves a child?
A lover who kills his life-time darling?
Contradictory behavior gives depth to character. Later, the sudden revelation of why such behavior wasn’t actually “out of character” is, in fact, nothing more than subtext coming out of its veiled self by rising to the forefront; this is when subtext becoming text, when reality shows its true face.
When such revelations change the entire course of the story, they become the story’s structural Turning Points, and leading ultimately to the final climatic revelation that brings us to a New Equilibrium when all the key subtext questions have been resolved.
3) Subtext by Discrepancy: When we want to suggest that things are not as they seem, we are playing with discrepancies.
Discrepancies between what a character desires and what he or she truly needs, is what creates character, what reveals the rifts in our (and the characters’) assumptions, making us beg for clarification.
If we know how to work with discrepancies, we’ll be able to create what is known as “character arcs” … and all that comes with it.
Similarly, the discrepancy of what one character says happened, and what readers know happened, are but ways to say—without stating it outright—that a particular character is a liar … or a hero trying to keep a secret at all costs!
Now, tell me this isn’t just the beginning!
The Art Of Subtext: Beyond Plot - Charles Baxter.
Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath - Linda Seger.
Between The Lines - Jessica Page Morrel.
"Filmmaker Andrew Stanton ("Toy Story," "WALL-E") shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning. Contains graphic language ... " — FOR Edward Stanton’s TED Talk: "The clues to a great story" - CLICK HERE.
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