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Monday, June 17, 2019

Undercurrent vs. Subtext vs. Theme

A while ago, I had a follower ask me to do a post about undercurrents, subtext, and themes, and how they are different, which is also one of the reasons I did that whole article about how to write theme the other week.

So basically:

I have an article about undercurrents.

I have an article about subtext.

And I now have an article about theme.

Worth noting is that "undercurrent" is a term I made up. I don't know if other people use another word for it. So if you have no clue what I mean by "undercurrent," it's probably only because you haven't read my article on it, which is fine. Whatever you want to call it, it's helpful you understand the concept.

But here's the thing, as I've thought about this post, some could easily argue that "undercurrent" and "subtext" are the same thing (and maybe that's why a term for "undercurrent" doesn't exist), but to me, they are somewhat different concepts, even if they overlap. Sorta like nectar vs. honey.

Also, I think it's important to keep in mind that I'm probably regularly evolving my ideas about writing, to some extent. And since this is a blog, you guys get to follow my process with that, so my ideas and term choices might shift a little bit, which can be confusing. (Like in my recent theme article, I had to admit to using the term "theme" to mean both "thematic statement" and "theme topic" in prior posts.)

But, I still think it's helpful to think of subtext and undercurrent as two different concepts, if two sides of the same coin.


Undercurrent to me is the "under" side of the story. I think of this more as . . . well . . . real (. . . in an imaginary/fiction sort of way.) It is the story (or stories) under the one we as an audience are following.

For example, mystery plots have an "under story." The audience follows the person who is investigating, that's the "surface" story. But the "under story" is the murderer's story (assuming this is a murder mystery) of how and why he killed the victim. We won't get a clear idea of the murderer's story until the end of the book, but we see parts of it hit the surface story (like clues and hints).

J. K. Rowling does this very well, which is why I always refer to her when talking about the concept of undercurrents. Every wizarding world story (except the last one, which is why I think it sorta failed and I wrote an article on that) has both a surface story and an undercurrent story.

Like this:

Sorcerer's Stone

Surface story: A boy finds out he's a wizard and goes to a school to learn how to wield magic.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is trying to get the Sorcerer's Stone to return to power

Chamber of Secrets

Surface story: Harry returns to Hogwarts and tries to learn who is opening the Chamber of Secrets
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is using Ginny Weasley to try to come back through a Horcrux

Prisoner of Azkaban

Surface story: While at school this year, Harry has to worry about being attacked by Sirius Black
Undercurrent story: Sirius escaped from prison to kill Peter Pettigrew as punishment for what happened with Lily and James.

Goblet of Fire

Surface story: Harry has to compete in a dangerous tournament
Undercurrent story: Barty Crouch Jr. is working to resurrect Voldemort

Order of the Phoenix

Surface story: Harry is pitted against Umbridge, who works for the ministry, and is wrecking havoc on the school.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort is trying to use Harry to get the prophecy from the Department of Mysteries

Half-blood Prince

Surface story: Harry is obsessed with finding out what Malfoy is doing and is sure he is a Death Eater.
Undercurrent story: Voldemort created at least seven Horcruxes and Dumbledore is hunting them.

Deathly Hallows

Surface story: Harry is hunting and destroying Horcruxes.
Undercurrent story: The Deathly Hallows themselves, particularly the fact Voldemort wants the Elder Wand.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Surface story: Newt needs to recapture all the beasts that escaped into New York.
Undercurrent story: Grindelwald is trying to get his hands on an obscurus as a weapon.

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald

Surface story: ????? (<-- missing!)
Undercurrent story: The identity (and significance) of Credence

Often by the end of the story, the undercurrent, or at least parts of it, come to the surface. Harry stops Quirrell from getting the stone, he defeats the Horcrux in the chamber, he frees Sirius Black, learns that Moody is actually Barty Crouch Jr. etc.

But often an undercurrent story will hit the surface story in some degree in some places prior.

Yes, I made this in Paint :)

The undercurrent story is still just as "real" as the surface story. We just don't see all of it (otherwise it would be another surface story), but in your fictive world, it's an additional set of events that played out.

In some rare stories, such as "Hills like White Elephants" by Earnest Hemingway, almost nothing connects the undercurrent story to the surface story, so unless someone tells you or you've studied literature, you may read the story and finish it scratching your head. You didn't know or have access to the undercurrent story, only the surface one (which was rather uneventful).

The undercurrent isn't really hitting the surface story

I like to take this a step further, and say there are even levels within the undercurrent--how "deep" it goes.

For example, we may have an undercurrent story for one Harry Potter volume, but there is also a deeper undercurrent through the whole series.

I'm not going to review all the level concepts, but if anyone wants to learn more, they're in my undercurrent article.

The undercurrent is content that is happening in the fictive world that the audience doesn't directly see fully play out.

It makes the story feel bigger than what's on the page and also draws the audience in, because it invites them to participate instead of just spectate.

But maybe the reason "undercurrent" doesn't have its own term is because a lot of people just lump it in with "subtext." After all, isn't "subtext" everything that isn't directly on the page?

At the same time, I know I'm not the only person in this industry that criticizes the ambiguity of writing terms (like "theme" and "hook" and "plot point two" and "beat" and even "ambiguity" itself). No one polices the terms, which I think makes it more difficult to teach and learn about writing. And personally, I sometimes think we lump too many concepts to the same term, so we miss out on specifics and details. It would be like calling every type of dog a "dog," and not noticing the differences between the pug and the St. Bernard. I sometimes feel we are missing the "breed" equivalent in writing terminology. We call all dogs, "dogs." This makes it more difficult to discern and harness each breed's specialties.


For undercurrents, I think of more of the larger fictive world, but for subtext, I think more of the actual book and getting it on the page (or rather, with subtext, implying it enough without putting it on the page directly). In that sense, in the book, the undercurrent usually manifests as subtext in some way.

Subtext is what is implied, but not stated directly on the page.

Since the undercurrent story/stories is not the surface story, then naturally, any sense of it that doesn't fully surface is going to show up as subtext.

But as I said above, an undercurrent story may come to the surface story, often at the end (though technically, it can surface elsewhere, I guess).

Which at that point, the undercurrent story is no longer using subtext, but now stated directly in the text. (This would be the point in all the Harry Potter books where Harry discovers the undercurrent story). It touched and went into the surface story. It is at the surface in that moment.

I guess, technically, you could have an undercurrent story that never appears as subtext in the book, and then suddenly comes to the surface at a point in the text. Like . . . surprise! Guess what else has been going on all along that we had no clue about? I'm trying to think of a specific example . . . It's like when a character suddenly reveals they have been taking dance lessons all year, but there were zero hints or subtext about it. A lot of times, this might manifest as a deus ex machina. However, if it's not vital to solving a plot problem, then it might not be one, just a bit of undercurrent that has surfaced.

Whew! This is getting technical. :)

I guess I think of subtext as more of the highway the undercurrent may take. But maybe the term "subtext" is still too ambiguous in the writing industry. Maybe like the word "theme" it actually has two or more components. The technique of subtext. And the content of subtext. But like "theme," we all point at it and just say, "nice subtext" (guilty).

In my article on subtext, I titled it "How to Write What's not Written," and it's largely about the technique of subtext. The actually process of getting it on the page indirectly.

You could say that the concept of undercurrent and the concept of subtext content largely overlap. Which is probably why me talking about each of them can be confusing. Like a lot of writing topics, it kind of gets down to how you want to categorize them (unfortunately). For example, in my series on story structure, I talked about how a lot of "story structures" are similar, but have different names and terms for the same concepts and different approaches to how to slice and dice the story. In a Hero's Journey, the "Call to Action" is essentially the "inciting incident."

The subtext content, I guess, in a sense, is in the undercurrent, because it's not stated plainly on the page. But I'm not sure that all subtext content is attached to an undercurrent story.

If one character hates broccoli, but that's never stated directly on the page, just implied, and it's never really connected to anything else in the book, then I'd probably just call it subtext content, not an undercurrent story. Maybe the fact she hates broccoli has no story behind it; it's just the way she was born.

However, in a scene, it may be subtext content and manifest on the page through subtext technique.

Let's try thinking of this and breaking this down a different way.

Subtext content is still "under" the surface, but it may not be connected to anything really. It may not have a cause and effect or tell a story or have any significance.

But an undercurrent story, which is also "under" the surface, does.

So maybe, from this perspective, I'm using "undercurrent" too ambiguously. Because subtext content is still in the "undercurrent" floating around, but may not always be connected to anything significant overall. It's in the current of the river, but not necessarily following the currents.

Still, subtext content and undercurrent story can overlap and be the same element in some scenes, but since I don't think all subtext content is part of an undercurrent story, to me, they are two different things.

(Anyone confused yet? 😆😅)

If you are confused, no worries, you do not need to see stories the same way I do to be successful! But, for me, seeing these as different concepts, helps me be able to use them better (and helps me know what I am doing).

It's also possible to have lots of subtext content in the under part of storytelling, without having an actual undercurrent story. It is just subtext content manifested through subtext technique, that doesn't connect to an "under" plot.

Every successful story needs subtext content. Similar to what I said in the section above, subtext content also invites the reader to be a participator instead of just a spectator. And it also gives the impression that there is more to the story than what is on the page.

But I would argue that many of the most satisfying stories, and certainly the stories with some of the greatest re-read value, don't just have subtext content, but undercurrent stories--subtext content that connects to something bigger and greater (and more rewarding).

Note: Looking back, I've realized that in other places I've referred to "subtext content" as "subtext subject"--great, now I'm being ambiguous with my own terms ðŸĪŠ I might have to go through later and try to make that more cohesive.


Okay, so how does theme fit into this crazy?

Well, theme is kind of its own thing, but in storytelling, everything is interconnected, so in a lot of ways, basically nothing is its own thing. 😅

But lets not confuse ourselves more than we already have today.

The main two flaws with theme you want to watch out for, are:

1. you don't want to swing the thematic statement at everything from beginning, through middle, and to the end, and
2. you don't want to over-simplify opposing views and alternate experiences with the theme topic.

The thematic statement is meant to be the answer, the resolution, to the characters' struggles concerning the theme topic. If you are throwing the thematic statement (the "answer") all around throughout the story, it will probably be heavy-handed and preachy. Over-simplifying other perspectives and experiences only makes this worse, and actually weakens, not strengthens, the theme.

Elements of theme are often handled through subtext (both as subtext content and (obviously) subtext technique), and they can relate to undercurrent stories. Being more subtle (by using them this way), can also help you avoid problem #1 (though may not solve it completely).

For theme, I feel that undercurrent stories and subtext are just more ways to render it effectively in the narrative.

Throughout the course of a story, theme may seem to play out similar to an undercurrent story--where the theme topic is touched on in the surface story again and again, until finally the thematic statement comes to the surface at the end. But honestly, trying to look at it this way seems to muddy it more to me, and not all undercurrent stories surface.

Also, some elements of theme may be addressed directly on the surface of the text, and therefore not be subtext or undercurrent story.

For me, I like to think of theme more as its own thing.

Anyway, I hope this all hasn't been too overwhelming! And by all means, don't feel like you need to think about stories the same way I do. Take what is helpful to your writing.

Next week I'll be back with a simpler subject.


  1. I think you might be a genius!

    1. Wow, thank you! Since I spend a lot of time alone (cause I work in this industry and it's kind of a solo job), it's nice to know that someone out there appreciates my brain-work.

  2. I really like the idea of the undercurrent and the undercurrent story. Esp. with the Harry Potter examples. That's a great idea for analysis!

  3. I love your brain-work. Thank You.


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