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Monday, January 13, 2020

Context, Text, Subtext: Understand How Each Works in Storytelling

Hi everyone! Today I'm returning to some topics I've visited off and on during the last few years, mainly because I wanted one place that compares and contrasts all of them quickly, with links to the other articles for those ready to go more in depth.

Guys. We do not talk about context vs. text vs. subtext enough in the industry!

And this creates some problems! (which I'll touch on).

So here is a "quick sheet" on these three things.

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 when and how to use them.


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 of 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. The Hummer roared to life.

John headed for the main road.

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 meant to show us that John is terrible with names? Is this a typo or mistake the author made?

We don't know.

This passage lacks context, meaning we cannot access clear, accurate meaning from it.

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 for further reading.) If there is no context, there is almost no investment in the story, because the audience doesn't have access to the meaning of any of it. If they don't have access to any clear meaning, they are unable to care about what happens. Perhaps the only time where a lack of context works well is when writing teasers (which must always be short strictly because they lack context). An audience will not sit through a lack of context for very long.

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. The Hummer roared to life, and he headed for the main road.

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.

Context almost always connects to the viewpoint character. The viewpoint character provides insight on how to accurately interpret what is going on. He or she gives us a sense of boundaries and helps assign value and meaning to the narrative.

For a more in depth look at context, see my post on it here: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2017/04/context-vs-subtext-context-should-not.html


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 context is within the text, just as subtext is--after all, we need to have text in order to have context or subtext. But they are slightly different things. They may overlap and relate to each other, but they aren't the exact same.

Almost everything you read about writing is talking about text.


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. But you must have context first, before you can have subtext.

Context (allows accurate interpretation and understanding of)  --> Text (what is actually written) --> Subtext (what else the text implies)

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. The subtext is that although Mr. Henderson acts like he disproves of Robert's joke, his body language actually tells us he thought it was funny. That's the subtext.

Subtext happens through implications. It also almost always uses contradictions of one sort or another. Notice in the example that what Mr. Henderson says it 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.

A danger can arrive when the writer misunderstands these terms and tries to make context into subtext.  That doesn't work.

Subtext can seem complicated and difficult to master, but if you are interested in learning in depth about it, you can see my post on how to write (not write?) it here: https://www.septembercfawkes.com/2015/03/how-to-write-whats-not-written-subtext.html


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