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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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

Hi everyone! As some of you know, four times a year I coach over at WritersHelpingWriters.net, and that's what I'm doing today. So for this week's tip, I'm going to send you over there (hope you don't mind!), where I'm talking about the difference between context, text, and subtext in writing, how each functions and where each fits in storytelling. I've designed this post to give you a clear but quick rundown, because we don't talk about these three terms enough.

But if you are on the fence, here is the opening to help you decide if you want to read further. . . .


In 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.


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.

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.

Have a great week!


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