NOTE: Our service for writers, Subtext, was originally called the “Atomizer”. While several of the screenshots below still refer to this older name, the same exact functionality exists in Subtext (actually, it’s even better now!)
The latest version of Subtext (v 0.2), released early last week, offers a revolutionary approach towards developing a complete and compelling story. Instead of matching your story idea to a pre-determined set of story beats, Subtext listens to what you want to say and creates an outline that supports this purpose. Imagine a template that adjusts to you, rather than you form-fitting your artistic intentions into a popular paradigm.
Developing a story with Subtext consists of three easy steps:
The process takes an hour, less depending on how comfortable you are with brainstorming. By gently corraling your story ideas towards a thematic structure that supports & communicates your artistic intent, Subtext assures a story of integrity and narrative cohesiveness.
It’s also a lot of fun.
After rolling out last week’s update, I turned to my teenage daughter Katie to help me test it out. If you remember the article, Training the Next Generation of Storytellers, you know Kate exhibits a natural talent & boundless curiosity for great storytelling. This interest led her to seek out the storyform for her 1984 English class assignment and endless speculation as to the storyform for Wreck-it Ralph.
It also led her to a bevy of unfinished stories, something that I think everyone can relate to.
As the perfect test subject, Katie agreed to meet with me at Starbucks after school and help me identify issues with this brand new approach. We ordered our drinks, sat down at our table, and began writing a story that didn’t exist 24 hours prior.
In less than 45 minutes, we wrote a complete and compelling narrative begging for completion.
After logging in, I tapped on Develop. Subtext works in the browser, which means it works on Mac and PC and pretty much any smartphone ever created. For this outing, we went with my trusty iPhone X. That’s the best part about this service: you can start developing a story wherever and whenever you want—whenever the muse strikes your fancy.
The first step required Katie to come up with what she wanted to write about.
Most people confuse subject matter for conflict. Love, power, weakness, guilt—these are instances of subject matter, not conflict. What you want to say about love, power, and weakness is vastly more important and pertinent to your story’s structure. Are you exploring an overabundance of love, a reaction bred of weakness, or the ruthless pursuit of power? These inform structure because they describe an inequity—some imbalance that leads to conflict.
Deciding what we want to write about
Katie suggested “Miscommunication.” At first, I wasn’t even sure if that would be in there as it sounded a bit like subject matter to me. But before I could finish tapping, Subtext auto-suggested her request.
I wasn’t quite sure what she was thinking of or where she was coming from in regards to her intent. As a teenager, I know it can be difficult learning the ins and outs of friendships and broken relationships. I imagine it was something that rested heavy on her mind as she came right out with it.
That’s the key to developing a story: the more personal and honest the intent, the stronger the connection between Author and Audience.
I knew she was off on the right foot.
The next step involves connecting with what matters most.
Based on the choice made in the previous step, Subtext presents a list of Narrative Arguments that match the original request. If you wanted to write about the relentless pursuit of power, you would find stories that tell of triumph and tragedy arising from such pursuits. If instead, you wanted to write about an overabundance of love and the problems that come with favoring one over the other, you would receive an entirely different list of supporting arguments.
Subtext takes what you want to write about and scans its collection of over 360 films, novels, and plays to find a Narrative Argument that synchronizes with your Artistic intent.
Choosing the right narrative argument
At first, Katie couldn’t decide. Many of the arguments listed failed to land with her, and I worried that perhaps I needed to adjust this process. But then she found one that spoke to her:
Finding just the right message
As a father, this broke my heart. As a fellow storyteller, I loved the honesty.
Katie has yet to see The Usual Suspects, but the argument that film makes resonated with her inner artist. That’s another benefit of Subtext: you don’t have to sit through 300+ movies just to find the one narrative structure that matches what you feel inside. You just have to listen to your intuition and sense what feels right to you.
The rest is magic.
Subtext takes the structure of the Narrative Argument you want to make and instantly propagates an outline with corresponding random story beats. And not just any story beats, these beats support and enhance what it is you want to say. Katie started out knowing she wanted to write about “miscommunication” and the personal tragedy inherent in seeing things as they indeed are; now she had a complete template based on those intentions.
Even if you have no idea where to start, Subtext suggests a way forward.
Key to starting a narrative is deciding upon a group of characters for the story to focus on and the name of the Main Character. Also, one must name the character who challenges the Main Character’s way of seeing things, the Influence Character, and the unique relationship they share. This last one is important. Speaking as someone with several years of experience guiding writers, directors, novelists, and students the relationship between the Main Character and Influence Character, the heart of every story is usually the one thing everyone misses.
Knowing this, I made sure these initial selections were part of the outlining process. If you can’t come up with something on your own, Subtext will provide you with suggestions.
The synopsis of our story
Katie wanted to write about a group of teenagers, which was a nice departure from the group of middle-aged men that I usually encounter in similar writing exercises (most people end up writing about themselves). She named the Main Character Matthew and his Influence Character Arthur. For the relationship, she chose “frenemies” which she explained to me as:
Frenemy means that they’re you’re friend, but there’s a huge rivalry in the way and the two often bicker. You can’t trust your enemy with your life but you could hang out with them for a while.
Again, heartbreaking, but as you can tell, essential for the development of an honest and engaging story. With that touching bit in place, we moved on to the establishment of our first story point.
Stories begin with the creation of an imbalance, prompting efforts to bring resolution to that inequity. The specific story point that resolves the conflict in a story is known as the Story Goal. If you don’t see the Goal of your story, you have no idea what you’re working towards; your story beats will fail to hold together. Subtext asks this story point first because it’s vital that you establish a direction for your story to follow.
At first, Subtext gave us “Being Agnostic about Something.” This phrase didn’t resonate with Katie, so we tapped on the gold Randomize Story Point for another. The next was “Being Dense.” Again, no dice. We continued the process until something landed for her:
The last one connected. Something about this last point and the story points that proceeded gave her the idea of making the story about a time machine, specifically grasping the meaning of the machine’s arrival. We tapped on the blue Edit pencil icon, and entered our initial idea:
Defining the goal of our story
Naturally, Dad had some influence on the actual wording of this story point, but the intent rested with Kate.
Intuitive writers might notice the commonality behind the “random” story points provided by Subtext. While spanning the globe of conflict from vampires to aliens to career choices, the above list could be summed up in one word: Understanding. This is not an accident.
The Story Goal of The Usual Suspects is Deciphering What Happened on the Boat that Night, another instance of Understanding. A boat goes up in flames, men fall victim to violence, and an investigation begins to resolve this treacherous mystery. Understanding is the Story Goal of a story about “deciphering a mystery.” The specific instance of it can shift; as long as the structural base of the narrative remains intact, the story will continue to function.
This is how Subtext works: by keeping the structural integrity of your story intact, yet hidden out of sight, you the writer can focus on developing a great story.
With the players and Story Goal set, we moved into the actual outline itself. As with our initial story point, the twenty or so story beats that follow form the foundation for our story’s argument. These are the bare minimum; you could always add more, but if you were to take any away you would risk obfuscating or clouding your story’s original intent.
And again, Subtext maintains the consistency of structure.
The first story beat was all about the group of teenagers:
This last one struck home. Based on our initial Story Driver, which we decided was all about the time machine materializing out of nowhere and demanding some answer, we figured that the kids would start having fun with it, figuring out what they could get away with and how far they could go.
You know, teenager stuff.
Breathing life into a story beat
You’ll note that this first beat, like the Story Goal of Understanding, is all about Learning. This happens to be the focus of the first Act in The Usual Suspects and therefore the focus of our story. Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) starts interrogating Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) the same way Matthew and Arthur begin “interrogating” the capabilities of their new time machine.
Same story. Same message.
Completely different genres. Completely different storytelling.
From there, the story opened up in new and surprising ways. Our Main Character’s first character beat was “Matthew puts a particular group’s house in order,” which gave Katie the idea of Matthew dealing with his parent’s divorce (another case of art reflecting reality). We didn’t even have to flip through an assortment of different character beats, this one spoke to her right away.
Developing the emotional journey of the central characters
That happened again with Arthur’s first character beat. “Arthur feeling rejected” inspired a story idea about Arthur dealing with a breakup and its impact on Matthew. Both characters approach separation in different ways. Matthew wants to do something about it, Arthur quietly takes it all in. This difference helped inform our first story beat dealing with their relationship.
“The frenemies relationship forms new ideas about something” describes where their relationship begins. Again, we didn’t have to randomize the story point at all. Quite magically, Subtext gave us exactly what we wanted, but didn’t know we needed. Because they didn’t see eye to eye when it came to dealing with separation, they begin to sense a gap opening up in their relationship; for the first time, Matthew and Arthur begin to get the idea that perhaps they were no longer suited to be friends.
Now, this is incredible.
What began as an idea about “miscommunication,” and grew to an intent towards “deciphering a mystery” and a story about a time machine, transformed into a comprehensive drama about the will and desire to survive emotional separation.
All within the span of fifteen minutes.
The relationship story beat that brings it all together
The writers among you sense where this story leads. You can already see it play out, and perhaps feel inspired to take it as your own. By all means, do so. In fact, start with Subtext, enter “miscommunication,” select the argument attached to The Usual Suspects, and begin developing your take on it.
I know it will be a great story.
Every writer struggles with the middle of their story. The number one request I receive from readers and clients is Can you help me figure out what to do in the middle of my story? I can write and rewrite the first Act over and over again, and I know how it is going to end, but when it comes to the middle, I get lost.
Subtext takes care of the middle.
Many writers assume every story consists of three Acts. Not true. Some stories call for two Acts, some call for four, and yes, some request three. Believe it or not, the most successful stories (as per box office) are two Act structures. Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Dark Knight feature narratives with two distinct dramatic movements.
Connecting the middle to the end through theme
Subtext splits your outline into the appropriate amount of Acts based on your Narrative Argument. If your story calls for a distinct middle event (two Acts), it will let you know. If your story calls for something a bit more elegant and subtle (three Acts), it will tell you that as well. The point is you will know the exact story beats that make up the middle needed to communicate the message you wish to send out successfully.
You only need to come up with creative and innovative ways of telling those story beats.
In the end, Katie and I came up with a compelling and moving story that not only answered her questions about “miscommunication,” but taught her a little bit about her struggles with her friends and the world around her. The frenemies grew apart, the time machine broke down, Matthew’s parents stayed together for all the wrong reasons, and in the end, Matthew sacrificed his happiness after realizing the real purpose of the time machine’s arrival: letting things unfold in their own time.
He also discovered something else:
The truth is revealed
A tragic ending to be sure, but one that naturally matched the same emotional response found at the end of The Usual Suspects. It also, I suspect, equaled the same kind of emotional response Katie found in her miscommunications with her close friends. With a greater understanding of life and love, she suggested a title for it all, Unfolding.
And we didn’t even have time to finish our coffee.
While the story proper veered off into far-fetched areas (teenagers robbing banks), the emotional resolution to our efforts felt right and synchronized with her artistic intentions. From an intent to explore miscommunication came the somewhat mature understanding that sometimes you just need to let things unfold along their timeline. Beautiful.
If she were in a position to pitch this story to an agent or a producer, she could easily transfer the contents of the outline into her favorite editor and begin refining the story. An hour or two later, she could have something more comprehensive and far more sophisticated than a simple logline.
She could have a complete story ready for a green light.
Our finished outline in the Outline View
How exactly does this work?
Author’s Intent dictates story structure. No two stories are alike because no two stories share the same Narrative Argument.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Star Wars and Black Swan share the same storyform. So do Finding Nemo and Collateral. Wait, you didn’t realize that Marlin (Alfred Brooks) and Vincent (Jamie Foxx) were the same characters? It’s true, they both possess a similar problem of Avoidance.
A clownfish in a taxi.
Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story almost share the same storyform (the Story Limits differ), but most writers know about that one. A handful of others exist, but for the most part, complete narratives diverge regarding thematic content & presentation.
Which means their structure needs to be different.
It also means that if you find a narrative structure that matches your artistic intent, then you have a basis for developing your story.
The storyform contains the message of the narrative. A story that tells of tragedy arising from a Main Character’s decision to change a paradigm differs from the triumphant stand of sticking to one’s philosophy. The unique arrangement of story beats that supports this message is a function of 75 separate story points.
Now, you could spend two decades learning the intricacies of these story points like me—
—or you could use Subtext. The choice is up to you.
I engineered Subtext for writers like Katie who want to spend more time writing stories and less time learning how to put their stories together. With only a fraction of understanding, this 16-year-old crafted a deeply emotional story that stands up to the efforts of those twice or three times her age.
Imagine the number of stories waiting to be told by those with decades more experience behind them.
You can read the final rough outline for Unfolding here.