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.
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