What’s Left Unsaid 

Depth in Storytelling

In the complex landscape of storytelling, Robert McKee’s Story has emerged as a masterclass for understanding the dynamics of narrative. One of the most nuanced concepts McKee broaches is that of subtext, a layer of meaning not immediately apparent on the surface of the dialogue or action. 

Before delving into McKee’s insights, let’s establish a baseline definition. Subtext refers to the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in literary composition, dialogue, or situation. It’s what is not directly said but is still conveyed, adding depth and complexity to characters, relationships, and the story.

A World Beyond Words

In his book Story, Robert McKee emphasizes that subtext is integral to profound storytelling. He suggests that subtext resides in the realm of conflict underneath the text and is often articulated through the characters’ behavior rather than their words.

McKee argues that characters’ true feelings and motivations are often not on the surface. They don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. Instead, their real feelings and desires are hidden in the subtext, revealed in actions, reactions, and decisions that contradict their words or outward persona.

Characterization and Subtext

McKee further states that we find the richness of characters in their subtext. What a character does despite what they say often reveals their true nature or conflict. For instance, a character may verbally deny being scared, yet their jittery movements, nervous glances, and profuse sweating suggest otherwise. In this case, the subtext reveals a more accurate portrayal of the character’s feelings than their dialogue.

Subtext in Dialogue

According to McKee, dialogue is not merely an information exchange; it’s a battleground of subtext where characters engage in conflict, conceal their feelings, or pursue their agendas. He suggests that on-the-nose dialogue—where characters say exactly what they feel or think—should be minimized. Subtextual dialogue is far more engaging, stimulating the audience to read between the lines and perceive what’s left unsaid.

The Importance of Subtext

Why does McKee emphasize subtext so heavily? Subtext enriches a story by adding depth, tension, and realism. Life rarely presents itself on the surface; our deepest fears, desires, and truths often remain unsaid or are cloaked in symbolism or evasion. By mirroring this in storytelling, subtext brings a rich complexity that resonates with audiences, making them active participants as they decipher underlying meanings and themes.

According to Robert McKee, understanding and effectively employing subtext is crucial to masterful storytelling. It not only layers complexity onto characters and their interactions but also creates an engaging, dynamic narrative that captivates the audience. McKee writes, “Subtext is the substance of a film, play, or novel…It’s what’s going on beneath the surface.” So, as you craft your next story, remember that what’s left unsaid can often say the most.

More Heinlein Wisdom

Robert A. Heinlein, one my favorite writers, had five rules for writing.

They are:

1. You Must Write

2.Finish What Your Start

3.You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

4.You Must Put Your Story on the Market

5.You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

All good advice. However, Rule 3 usually takes some explaining. Heinlein may very well have been confident in sending out first drafts–he was Robert A. Heinlein after all–but most of us could not get away with that. First drafts are almost always too rough to be seen by anyone except your dog. Since dogs can’t read, they are just impress that you have words on paper. Most people agree that what Heinlein was trying to say was “Don’t rewrite endlessly.”

I struggle what that one a lot. The fact is it can alway be better, but at some point you just have let it go. Knowing when it has reached this point is the hard part. A simply one line rule can’t tell me when it is time to stop. Still, keeping the rule in mind does help.

Novelist Robert J. Sawyer has a good article on these rues with his take on them and adds a sixth. Well worth checking out.

Now I’m off to polish up that first chapter a bit more. Or maybe not.