Have you ever asked two people what a movie was about and got two divergent answers? Sure, the essence of the story was the same but they related to the “heart of the story” differently. There are several reasons for this, but I want to talk about just one reason; the difference between text and subtext.
What am I trying to say? I’m talking about the difference between what a story is about (text) and what a story is really all about (subtext). For example, several years ago I wanted to see Remember the Titans, a film starring Denzel Washington. My wife and I saw the trailer on TV so I asked if she wanted to go. “No,” she said, “I’m not interested in a movie about football.”
“It’s not about football,” I replied. “It’s about relationships. Football is just the backdrop.”
It took some convincing but she went along with me. An interesting thing happened. During the film, the subtext spoke to her heart and it became her favorite movie. Naturally, we later bought the DVD and we have now seen it 17 times at last count. So, what’s my point?
As writers, we need to ask ourselves at least two questions about every story we write. First, what is this story about? Second, what is this story really all about? Let’s go back to Remember the Titans and ask these two questions. What is this story about? It’s about the T.C. Williams High School football team in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. After 15 winning seasons, Bill Yoast, a white high school football coach is demoted when a no-nonsense, by-the-book African-American coach is hired to replace him as head coach. A true story, Coach Herman Boone will teach his newly integrated team how to live together—and win together—during this racially charged era.
Now the second question. What is this story really all about? It’s about confronting our pride—and our prejudice. It’s about taking a good, hard look at the man in the mirror—or the man behind the mask. It’s about walking a mile in another man’s shoes—and confessing that you prefer the comfort of your own. It’s about having the courage to ask for forgiveness—and finding ways to forgive. It’s about judging your heart, not your fellow man. It’s about leveling a playing field, not leveling accusations. And yes, it’s about winning football games—by overcoming your opponents—and your misguided preconceptions.
Subtext is an integral part of any story. It’s the story beneath the story. These two simple questions can help bring your story into sharp focus and grab the reader. To understand subtext more fully, simply ask yourself these two questions about every story you read.
More importantly, to connect with your audience, ask yourself these two questions about every story you write.
The Writer’s Refuge blog is a place for writers, like you, to break away from your
daily routine and for just a few minutes find insight, inspiration or simply a word of
encouragement. Blog entries are posted once a week on Thursday.
Please leave a comment or you may reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.