Text, Context, and Subtext

Separating the levels of storytelling

Jun 8, 2020 · 11 min read
Photo by Alessia Cocconi on Unsplash

It may be tempting to think that a story is the words on the page. Clear, black on white. Of course, without those words, there would be no story. Words are what evocate the characters, the setting, the goals, the conflict. We wouldn’t be aware of anything if we couldn’t read or hear those words.

But storytelling goes far beyond. Sure, words are the formula of the magic spell which is storytelling, but the spell is far more powerful. The spell allows us to see and to smell and to touch. And to feel. To experience.

Text, Context, and Subtext are the layers that allow that spell to exist and to affect us. These are the different forces that transport us to another place and often to another time. At least for a little while.

What is the Text

The Text is the actual words. It’s what the story actually tells us, often in the form of statements. It’s the facts.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

— The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

There are a few statements here that are plain text.

Bilbo Buggings is turning 111, and he will celebrate his birthday with a great party. That event gets the community he lives in into a buzz.

We don’t have to interpret these statements. These are facts that remain the same from whatever angle we look at them.

Facts are what makes the story, and everything else (Context and Subtext included) rests upon it. Without the Text, we wouldn’t have the other two levels of reading.

Text is made up of different elements:

  • Descriptions, whether of people or places. To visualize the characters of the story and the places they act in, we need to base our visualization on very straightforward descriptions.
  • Dialogue, which reports to us what characters say, the very words.
  • Action, which relates to us what the character (and everything else, such as environment) do as the story evolves.

What is the Context

As the word says, it’s everything that goes with the Text. Everything that surrounds it.

There is information that, although quite straightforward, we don’t immediately grasp.

In the example above, what and where is Hobbiton? Is Bag End part of it? And if it is, what is it? Who is Bilbo Baggins? And maybe, more importantly, is he going to be the main character of this story?

The Context will answer all these questions.

I could tell you that Mr. Bilbo Baggins’s story takes place in Middle-earth, which is a fantasy world created by Prof. JRR Tolkien. In this world, many fantastical creatures exist, such as Elves and Orcs, and also little people called Hobbits, who live in a secluded corner of Middle-earth, the quaint Shire. Hobbiton is the main town in the Shire, and Bag End is Mr. Baggins's prestigious home.

Everything I’ve said here is Context. It’s additional information without which understanding the Text — therefore the story — would be quite difficult.

We could say that while the Text is the bare bones, the Context is the meat on them. Still, it’s the Text that makes the story. With only the Context, we wouldn’t have a story, but only a setting.

Context it’s quite a tricky business because it is not only created by the author, but it’s a collaboration between the author and the reader.

The made-up Context

In the case made-up worlds like Middle-earth, we as readers don’t know anything about it until the author/narrator gives us the actual information. In this case, the Context is firmly in the hands of the author, who is the only source we have to get the information we need to absorb the Context of the story.

What the author tells us may be as simple as: in a corner of a fairytale world, a society of simple and happy people, the Hobbit, have lived for many centuries. There, Bilbo Baggins has his home, and on his 111th birthday, he decides to give a party.

Which is a true Context. All the information we get in this brief description is true. But Context may be a lot more complex than that. In truth, Context usually is a lot more complex.

Let’s see the same info as above on a different angle: In the vast land of Middle-earth, where many different creatures live, there’s a region in the north called Eriador. That land stands near to Mordor, a place of great evil, which is why it has slowly depopulated over the centuries. Communities of different peoples still live there, but so far apart from each other that they basically live in isolation.

One of these communities is that of the Hobbits, small people who came to Eriador many centuries before this story starts. They were granted the land that they call The Shire by one of the Numenórean Kings that still ruled that part of the land, and established a society that heavily relies on the countryside and enjoys simple things.

Hobbits tend to be content in their land and never go out of it and mix with other peoples, but some sixty years before this story, one Hobbit, Mr. Bilbo Baggins, went on an adventure, came back with a treasure everyone knows about, which made him even more wealthy than he already was — and also with a different treasure, no one knows about, and far more dangerous than Bilbo himself knows. That treasure is a Ring of Power, which is what allowed him to live to the very respectable age of 111 years, a long life even for long-living Hobbits, and which is the reason why Bilbo decides to give such a magnificent birthday party.

This is not in contradiction with the first simpler Context because this is also true. But it’s far more in detail, which allows us to understand the situation better.

Context doesn’t come in a standard way. It may be very complex or very simple as the author sees fit, or as the author thinks it is necessary for the reader to understand the story. It’s a very subtle balance between giving the right amount of info, enough to enjoy the story, and giving too much, enough to overwhelm and confuse the reader.

It’s a very subtle operation, creating the right Context. It’s in the hands and best judgment of the author to decide how far he needs to go to give the readers the right amount of info. What to leave out is as important as what to leave in.

For example, in the second Context, who are the Numenóreans? Who was the King who granted the Shire to the Hobbits? What did he ask in return? And what is a Ring of Power?

These are all information we can find in other parts of Bilbo’s story and also in stories not belonging to Bilbo, but the author may well decide we don’t need to know it here.

But then, even when the author decides not to include some of the info he is aware of, that info will tend to filter through, creating different layers of Context.

The real-life Context

But of course, Context may be not invented at all. A story may well happen in our own world, and the Context may be something we are familiar with.

Let’s cite another of Prof. Tolkien stories:

It was a cool, clear night after a windy day. It was starry in the west, but the moon was already climbing. At B.N.C. gate Lowdham turned. The Camera looked vast and dark against the moonlit sky. Wisps of long white cloud were passing on an easterly breeze. For a moment one of them seemed to take the shape of a plume of smoke issuing from the lantern of the dome.

— The Notion Club Papers by JRR Tolkien

Here Tolkien is describing a real place, Oxford. But don’t be mistaken, when the Context is a real place, it may be even more tricky to handle it.

With real Context, we have to take into account at least three variables: the author’s knowledge (which may not be as absolute as in the case of their own creation), the actual place with its look, history and culture, and the reader’s knowledge.

Most readers will know that Oxford is a university town in Great Britain, one of the most ancient in the country, mostly constituted by its campus. These are facts that we may discover or even already know independently from anything the author may say. Though, for example, we may not be familiar with the actual look of the town.

Tolkien worked and lived in Oxford for most of his life. As the author, he’s putting his familiarity into the description, for example, in the way he names things. The Camera, not the Radcliffe Camera, which is its official name. The only Context we know from his writing is that Lowdham and his friends are passing by the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford on an evening and some strange trick of the eyes makes it look like smoke is issuing by the lantern of the Camera’s dome. Tolkien doesn’t describe either the Camera, nor the dome, but by just mentioning them, we can start to visualize them.

I have been to Oxford a couple of times. I know what building Tolkien is talking about because I’ve seen it. I know that it dominates a square with its circular bulk, surmounted by a beautiful, large dome that ends with a squat lantern.

So here we have a real place, one that we can know, experience, and even describe independently. We have an author who knows the place very well and describes it from the perspective of residence, almost a fellow to the characters in the story, who also are residents of Oxford. And then there is the reader, who may or may not know what the author is talking about.

The Context that the reader may visualize doesn’t depend entirely on what the author reveals, (which in itself may be more or less accurate, depending on the author’s knowledge), but it also depends on the reader’s independent knowledge.

And of course, Context not only belongs to the real world but also to the story itself.

In this passage, for example, the cloud that looks like a plume of smoke issuing from the dome, when placed in the context of Tolkien’s history of Middle-earth assumes a very precise meaning.

If you think that’s a mess — you might be right.

What is Subtext

So we know that there is a Text, which is straightforward and fact-based. We have a Context which surrounds it, and that may come in different degree of details, and the reader may or may not be able to fill in the gaps. And then we have the Subtext, which is spelt nowhere in the story and it’s mainly the job of the reader to pick up.

The Subtext doesn’t live in the black words on the page but in the white spaces between them. Both Text and Context will give us hints, but it’s up to the reader to get those hints.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

— The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Why talk and excitement? Are those supposed to be different feelings? What is the ‘talk’ about?

Tolkien doesn’t tell us that there might be something wrong about Bilbo, but in the way he words the exposition of facts, a doubt may arise in the reader.

Later in the chapter, Tolkien will give us part of that ‘talk’. We’ll learn what the other Hobbits think about Bilbo going on an adventure, which is something Hobbits don’t do. Didn’t he come back a little cracked, more than he had ever been? Besides, as other say, there’s nothing bad in being a bit weird, and hasn’t Mr. Baggins always being liberal with his wealth, as the birthday party still shows?

So we have here the Text, the facts plainly stated: Bilbo, who was a peculiar Hobbit, to begin with, went on an adventure decades ago and came back with a treasure.

We have the Context, the setting where those facts live, which is partly stated straightforward and partly suggested: Hobbits are pacific people who don’t like things out of the ordinary because they disrupt life as they know and are comfortable with.

And then we have the Subtext, which isn’t stated anywhere but can only be surmised: While there are some Hobbits that still appreciate Bilbo for his personality, others don’t really trust him. And who knows that he won’t do it again, and maybe bring some bad luck right into the Shire?

Subtext and the narrator

Subtext does live mostly in the details. Because it is never clearly stated, it has to emerge somewhere and normally is in those details that are a bit off. Off enough to ask for attention. Details that raise a question, which the author won’t answer, but will give the readers all the hints to answer themselves.

There are a few places where Subtext is more likely to surface:

  • Dialogue: In the way something is said, the tone of voice, the words used, and the body language that goes with it.
  • Description: Again, the wording is very telling, because it may reveal more than just the looks of a place or a person. A sky may be grey as a frown on a face or grey as the breast of a turtledove.
  • Characters: especially in their adherence to the social norms of the society they live in, or their general attitude towards them.

Because the Subtext isn’t written in the story, it largely depends on what the narrator will tell us and how. It will also depend on the ability of the reader to decipher what the narrator says.

The Subtext is one of those elusive elements where the author and the reader have to collaborate on the telling of the story and therefore is one of the most powerful ways to bring a reader inside the story and let them absorb it and make them their own.

Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently. She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…


Written by

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd https://theoldshelter.com/

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.


Written by

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd https://theoldshelter.com/

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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