Friday, April 28, 2017

Using Context and Subtext to Raise the Stakes in Your Story: A Guest Post by Malcolm Tolman

Greetings, earthlings! Today's post is by Malcolm Tolman, an incredibly talented writer, voice actor, and sarcastic person. These next few Friday's will bring you posts by various writers who have stepped up to help me out while I muddle through my finals. Malcolm is kicking us off with an epic post about how to raise the stakes in our stories. It's excellent (we're talking Batman-level excellent, here) and I'm really excited for you to read it, so I'll stop writing now and let you get to it. Behold, Malcolm Tolman's guest post: 

Hello out there in the blogosphere! Have you ever read a book, watched a movie, attended a play, or played a game and wondered “…Why do I care?” It doesn’t matter if the main character is making a sandwich or saving the world (the two of which coincide far more often than you would first imagine) there just seems to be something beyond the action that either grabs our attention or doesn’t. And that something (or at least a portion of it) is what I would like to talk about today. So without further ado, let’s discuss “Stakes” and some of the common misconceptions surrounding them!

Now when I say “Stakes” I do not mean delicious slabs of slaughtered cow; Nor do I mean effective weapons for both slaying vampires and pitching tents. The term “stakes” is one that I heard first when learning improv in high school drama, and is one that I find transfers to all methods of storytelling.

“Stakes” put simply is “What’s at stake in this story?” It is the “Why should we care?” that a number of modern day stories have a tendency to lack. At first it may seem like a fairly simple and straight forward concept; However, it is also a term which is commonly tied to several unfortunately limiting misconceptions which tend to destroy the depth and flexibility this nuance usually brings forth.
Hannah Heath: Using Context and Subtext to Raise the Stakes in Your Story: A Guest Post by Malcolm Tolman
Misconception #1: Stakes are About What’s Happening.

A lot of beginning writers, especially in Western media, will tie the stakes of a story entirely to the action which is taking place. However, while the action and current setting do have ties to the stakes involved, there is also a lot more depth which tends to be overlooked with this method.

To understand this, we must first understand the three layers of communication. These being Text, Context, and Subtext.

Text is simply put, the words that we say, and believe it or not, only accounts for roughly 10% of what is communicated. Don’t believe me? Imagine a person in love with you saying “Oh! There you are!” (This may be more taxing on some people’s imaginations, such as my own, than others but do try!) Did you do it? Are you smiling? Okay. Now imagine you just did something you really shouldn’t have. You know you are in trouble, and your parent or other authority figure has just approached you from behind saying “Oh! There you are!”

…..Happy Feeling gone!

See? Same words, yet ENTIRELY different message communicated. This is important to realize, because while words do hold power in themselves, you need more than words to communicate your point! (this is half the reason why puns work!)

This leads us into context, which accounts for roughly 27% of what we are communicating. Context is simply what is happening, what we are doing, and what has happened or was done in the past. We saw an example up above with the loved one vs authority figure (while you are in trouble) comparison.

Now you might notice that context is pretty similar to the “action and setting” concept which this stakes misconception is about. That is because “What is happening and where” are both parts of context, though it still goes a little deeper as well as it also includes what history is involved. But as you may notice, this still only covers 27% of communication.

And so this leads to the big one. Otherwise known as “SUBTEXT”. Subtext is the paradoxical component which makes up roughly 63% of what you communicate. Why is it paradoxical you may ask? Because subtext refers to the things you AREN’T saying, yet manages to get communicated. How can this happen you may ask? I honestly have no idea. My own theory is that our thoughts are communicated on its own level, but the truth is that it’s something we have observed in this world, yet don’t fully comprehend.

Want to see how it works? Try this.

Say “Hi!”

Now say it like you love the person.

Now say it like you are scared of them.

Now say it like you’re introducing yourself.

Now say it like you just caught someone you’ve been chasing.

See how they all sound completely different? This is a common exercise within acting, but believe it or not it comes through in storytelling as well.

Now that we’ve dealt with this misconception, what can we learn from it? The most important thing is to know the details about your characters and your world. Know what your characters like. Know what they hate. Know what the history of the world is. Know how the history affected the characters. You don’t have to tell your audience everything, but the more YOU know about your characters, the more your readers will start to feel for your story and the more weight circumstances will begin to carry.

A character who comes across illicit goods may be interesting… but a character who just finished escaping from the law and his old gang in order to turn over a new leaf coming across illicit goods and having to decide if he can really risk getting pulled back into his old life in order to keep these goods from causing harm… Now it suddenly holds a lot more weight.

Misconception #2: High Stakes MUST Be a Life or Death Situation

I remember back when I was learning improv, there was one guy in my class no one ever wanted to go up (which of course was also the most frequent volunteer) because his only choice in every scene was to become a gunman and kill the other actor. Now this is an extreme case, but it’s something I see in a lot of stories these days where every story has to be about saving humanity, overthrowing the world order, or dealing with other life threatening issues. In a way, it makes sense. Death is a scary unknown for many people. The idea of being the one person who can stand up against a world order is greatly empowering. The main problem is that this uses a very cheap method of escalation to generate emotion from readers instead of letting the quality of writing do its work.

Now what do I mean by “Cheap method?” I am not talking like some old-fashioned author who is upset by these modern-day authors destroying my traditionalist methods. What this refers to instead is longevity of impact.

In all genres of writing, there is a way to easily get a quick and extreme reaction out of viewers, and a difficult way that takes a lot of time and subtlety. You can have Horror or Suspense, Erotica or Romance, Scandal or Mystery, and of course extreme stakes or subtle stakes.

These extreme methods are commonly seen in modern day writing as it takes far less effort to get readers to really react to what they’re reading. But the problem lies in how these methods rely on shock. And the problem with shock is that humanity is very good at adapting and becoming numb to it after enough exposure.

Sure, watching kids being slaughtered to appease some corrupt government may scare us and make us think now… but if all stories start to rely on that, how long is it before we start thinking “oh… ANOTHER one of these?”
This is what creates the difference between a recent best seller, and a timeless epic. Sure, you can put shocking things in your story, kill off characters, create corrupt worlds. But use it as seasoning. Not the main ingredient.

Also realize you don’t NEED to shock your readers to make them feel involved in your story. Let’s take something as simple as deciding to eat the chocolate on the table, by using the subtext and context theory from the previous misconception.

Now deciding to eat a chocolate off of a table is in itself a pretty mundane and boring idea. But let’s change things around a bit and see how it affects the stakes.

What if your main character is on a diet… and got sent their favourite chocolate from their brother. They have been SO good at maintaining this diet so far… But COME ON! It’s their FAVOURITE brand… and it’s there on the table… and… I mean… It’s just one…. But… GAH! Should they eat it? Should they not???

This brings forward the opportunity to create a very interesting and possibly funny story. The stakes are not tied to the chocolate itself, but to fighting temptation and doing what we know is right. Something we know we all can relate to and therefore feel for the character on. The main character isn’t diabetic. There is no risk to eating the chocolate save for losing to themselves in their attempt to maintain their discipline, yet it is still a fairly in depth story.

But that’s humor. Can you really do a heart-breaking story using such small stakes? Alright, let’s go back to our chocolate eating example (because I’m gonna prove to you the action isn’t the most important factor if it kills me) and change the context and subtext a bit more.
Your main character liked someone. They were in love. But… they were fat, chubby, and had really bad acne. They had spent months looking up health and fashion blogs. Trying to fight their shyness to become more outgoing and social. They gave up sweets and started using complicated facial cleansers to clear up their acne. Finally, after months of work it was finally starting to pay off! Walking through the hallway, they bumped into their crush who noticed them for the first time. They said they were looking really good, and that they really loved their new style. The main character’s heart leaped for a moment as it looked like things were finally working out for them when suddenly a voice called out their crush’s name from the end of the hall. It was the popular kid in their class… and their crush’s new romantic partner… the main character went home crushed… beaten… empty… They looked on their table to see a lonely chocolate. The simple pleasure they had given up for so long in order to get this far… but that didn’t matter anymore… nothing mattered… With tears beginning to stream down their face, they unwrapped the lonely chocolate… and ate it.

Same ending action, but ENTIRELY different feeling. Why? Because of the change in context and subtext. While the first example referred to self-discipline and attempting to overcome temptations, this story spoke of trying as hard as you can only to lose in the end. It is another story that many people can relate to. Note, the main character did nothing drastic. They did not commit suicide, or begin self-harming themselves. When you think about it… one solitary chocolate would probably not even undo anything they had accomplished the past few months. But it still hurts. It hurts because the character hurts, and we know that.

Now I could talk about this subject until my fingers fell off, however I’ve already pushed my max word count, so I should accept my defeat lest Hannah never invite me back again! 😉 I do hope you all have enjoyed this though, and have found it useful for your writing! Stakes are subtle, yet can make a huge impact on your writing once you have mastered them. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at or contact me at the twitter link provided beneath!

That is all from me! But for all of you out there in the greater blogosphere; Keep on writing!

See. Batman-level excellent. To learn about Malcolm's voice acting services, click here. Be sure to check out the demos tab because it's super cool. You can read his blog here, his book here, and his tweets here. Now leave a comment below! Tell us about your favorite point(s) in the post, ask questions, or weave your own narrative involving chocolate. We want to hear from you!

Related articles:
7 Tips for Writing Emotion Into Your Story
8 Different Kinds of Strengths to Give Your Characters
8 Tips for Developing a Strong Theme in Your Novel

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  1. Great post, Malcolm! My favorite line: "And the problem with shock is that humanity is very good at adapting and becoming numb to it after enough exposure." Yesssssss!
    The truth is that humans are so complicated that we writers should never grow tired of playing with subtext.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! ^_^ And yes! It is a huge problem today! In writing, movies, tv shows, video games, commercials, causes, and more. In my high school improv class we were banned from toilet humor, raunchy scenes, extreme violence, or anything like that. The teacher explained that while it was half because of school rules, it was also half to help us learn to create more quality and timeless art.

      And you are right! My favourite way to explain humans is to quote Gandalf's take on Hobbits. "You can learn all there is to know about them in half a day, yet spend a lifetime with them and still be taken by surprise!"

  2. Absolutely wonderful post, Malcolm! I've heard from others that drastic and violent measures need to be in the story to be a success in their minds, which makes me scratch my head. I'm so glad that someone thinks the same as I do.


    1. I am glad you enjoyed Catherine! And let's admit it... All the greatest writers started as people who scratched their head at what they were told HAD to be! ;)

  3. Great post! That's so true about context. I'm actually writing a scene right now where I'm struggling to get the character's mood changes across through the context, so this post came at a great time!

    Also, I relate to that improv guy... my go-to character is 'assassin.'

    1. Haha Glad I could be of help! =) It really does help to just think about how you would feel if you were put in your character's shoes.

      Have you ever read one of those comics about "What they say vs What they mean." where it will show what is REALLY going through someone's head when they say something? Anyways. Sometimes it helps to get your mind into the flow of things by doing something similar. Maybe have a notepad next to you that's separate from your story and for each line they say, write out what is going through their head at that point. Then reassess your writing now that you know what they're thinking.

      It's a little convoluted at first, but it helps get your mind into the flow of thinking with your character

    2. That's really great advice! I will definitely try that. Thanks!

  4. Nice post. I especially enjoyed the point about stakes not having to be life or death. One of the writing books I've read, by James Scott Bell, talked about the different level of stakes. Like professional "death", emotional "death", and actual death. There are certainly more than one way you can make your stakes bad without actual death.

    1. So true :) Honestly, if you like old shows (like Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyles, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Dick Van Dyke, etc) you'll probably notice that most of the stakes in those shows are actually pretty low... but you care about them because you care about and can relate to the characters. :) Like most things in writing, good characters can really trump all

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