Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Importance of Subtext in Story - The Story Book by David Baboulene

A few years ago I took a writing course that covered subtext because it was an element of writing that fascinated me. That course went through a lot of explanation of how characterisation, dialogue and even setting contribute to the development of subtext and instructed us to plan to build subtext into our stories. I was still fascinated, but not much clearer on exactly how one would go about “building” subtext. Subtext seemed this tenuous thing that should be left to writers of high-brow literary works.

When I was offered the chance to review The Story Book by David Baboulene, I was impressed to discover that David was writing a Ph.D. thesis on subtext with the conclusion that readers and audiences prefer stories with deeper levels of subtext.

In The Story Book, David clears up the mystery of subtext in a few lines:
David Baboulene
“Most writers think they must write subtext in order to deliver an underlying story. This is wrong... If the story is created using knowledge gaps, then the real story is received in subtext.”*
David explains that the disparity between what the author, characters, and reader knows, or thinks they know, is what delivers the subtext. There are twelve types of “knowledge gap”, but these all fall into one of two categories: Revelation Gaps and Privilege Gaps.

Revelation gaps are common in mystery stories, where the detective is (hopefully) a few steps ahead of the reader and teases the reader into reading more deeply for clues. Privilege gaps are found in thrillers where the reader often gains advance knowledge of impending danger, for example, and “watches” in suspense to see if the protagonist will fall into the author’s trap.

The reason these two genres, in particular, are so popular is due to the work that the reader has to do to follow the story. Think of subtext as a little bit of mystery in each scene, with a variation on who understands the clues the most (reader or character). Subtext works because it engages the reader and when a reader is guessing, assuming, and thinking about a story s/he enjoys that story so much more.

* Page 30, The Story Book by David Baboulene, DreamEngine Media Ltd., 2010

You can read more of my review of The Story Book and my conversation with David on HearWriteNow.  David can be contacted through his website or blog. You can follow David's blog book tour here.

The Story Book by David Baboulene is available from Amazon UK, and on Kindle from

Chapter 4 of The Story Book reviewed by Elsa Neal of A review copy of The Story Book was sent to the reviewer by the author.

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  1. Feel free to leave your comments and questions for David on subtext or any other writing issue. If we get some good questions we'll ask David to consider writing a follow-up post for us at Blood-Red Pencil.

    Elsa Neal
    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  2. Thanks for bringing David to BRP, Elsa. I do have a question. How does sub-text work in other genre work as well as mainstream. I have a sense of how it is handled, but it would be good to have a definitive response.

  3. I like that explanation of subtext. I find myself wondering if it's something that comes naturally to the story (seems like it would in a mystery), or something that's added, or even discovered later by the author (and reader), like theme.

  4. Stories that intrigue me always have layers that prod and tease my imagination and inspire me to dig for the treasures that lie beneath the surface. Books that are more fluff than substance get only a cursory read, never a probe into the hidden layers — because there aren't any. Thank you, David and Elsa, for giving definition to the way I read and write. This added insight will serve me well in editing others' works, as well as in creating my own. Excellent post!

  5. This says, to me, that subtext is what's going on beneath the surface, out of view of the reader. It's things left unsaid or hinted at but which are important or even critical to the story.

  6. I'm always encouraging my clients to include more subtext in their dialogue--great topic for discussion, Elle. I once heard a great quote, which I unfortunately can't attribute, but it goes something like "If your dialogue is only about what the characters are saying, then it isn't working hard enough for you." Subtext suggests all sorts of implied emotions; your reader feels smart for having picked up on them.

  7. Maryann,

    How I read it is that subtext forms when there is a difference between what the reader knows and what the characters know (and, on another level, the author). So this can work for any genre, but it is most obvious in mystery and horror or thriller genres. Metaphor is another way of delivering subtext in genres like Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Literary works. In Comedy subtext develops in the build-up to the punchline.


    Like anything in writing, there could very well be retrospective development of subtext, metaphor, imagery, theme, etc., during a revision.

  8. Thankyou Elsa,for bringing this topic to BRP. And thank you Helen & Kathryn for the insights.
    I'd love to hear more.
    Whether it be poetry or prose, subtext is invaluable.

  9. Thanks for the answer Elle. I think I have always used sub-text, I just didn't have a definition of it.

    Kathryn, I have heard that same piece of advice about dialogue. I remember one screenwriting instructor cautioning us about on-the-nose dialogue. For example, if a couple needs to talk about some tragic event, perhaps the death of a child, they will talk about the weather and how you never know what to expect. A storm blows up and destroys your garden.

    Maybe not the best example. My brain is fried and I need to close down after a long day of editing. LOL

  10. I think that's actually quite a good example, Maryann. You could extend the subtext of something like that by starting with a real storm and using "upheaval" as a metaphor...


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