Gists as Subtext

From a recent conversation in which part of it turned to gists:

I was just thinking about this the other day, too. About how gists seem like and are often spoken of or used as surface level story matter rather than subtext. But I suspect that they aren’t really meant to be used like that…or at least they would be better used as subtext.

Just because I like to look at examples, I want to see if I can toss one out here. Let’s say we have a gist of “Running a race”. So we might decide that our character is running a very dangerous race and the act of running the race causes him to face dangerous obstacles, fight against murderous criminals, etc. Now because we are using this gist as storytelling, we wrote a scene wherein all these things take place. But over the course of the story, we mention that this race was mandated by a cruel and corrupt govt. Uh oh, we may have just changed our storyform. Now it’s not “Running a race leads to brutal trials” but rather “corrupt govt leads to inhumane race”. We may very well have just switched our OS Physics to OS Universe without even realizing it.

But let’s go back and try again. So let’s keep “running a race leads to facing dangerous obstacles”, but this time, we make sure that “running a race” is the subtext to what we come up with. If a corrupt government becomes the source of conflict, we can’t use it. Let’s try to keep that off to the side and work it in later on as backstory/justification.

But now how do we keep “running a race” as the source of conflict? Well, we can still have our scenes where the character is running the race and facing dangerous obstacles. But we don’t want that to be the whole movie, so let’s come up with some other things that we might like to see. How about a scene where a couple breaks up? Not a relationship scene, necessarily, but just as an example of conflict. Why do they break up? Well because one of them is running a dangerous race and might be killed. And the one leaving doesn’t want to deal with that. How about a scene where a mobster offers a character lots of money to throw the race but death to win it? Well he wouldn’t be getting that offer if he wasn’t running the race, right?

So even though the gists have been discussed as surface level story telling, i think their best used when contained within the subtext of the scene. Does that make sense?

and later

Those are great examples of problematic gists. But they need the context of a story to say if they “work” for what I’m saying.

I’m going to try an analogy and see if I can get it to work.
If your car is running properly, your car battery provides the energy for you to start your car. If you hook jumper cables to your car and jump start it off another battery, then your battery is no longer the source of energy to start your car. A different battery is now that source. So when the energy is leaving your battery, your battery is the source of energy. If you are charging the battery, then your battery is not the source of energy.

Your gist is your battery in this scenario. You want the gist to provide the energy for conflict in your story. You don’t want to be charging the gist with energy from some other source/gist. That analogy probably didn’t really work the way I wanted it to, but it’s about making sure energy is flowing out of the gist to your story and not into your gist from your story. The way to do that is to write your gist and then make sure that you write what the gist leads to and not what leads to the gist.


more from that conversation
But just for fun, i want to run through another way of “Subtexting a gist”. :joy:

The majority of discussions on the Discuss forum start with an idea and then try to analyze the idea as if it were already a whole story. I’ve done this, too. A lot. So I get it. But instead of doing that, the author should decide what they want to say and then ADD that to the scene.

So say we have an idea for a scene that opens on an old lady, barely able to stand upright on her own, trying to check out at a grocery store. But something has her agitated. We don’t know what. All we know is that she is cursing the cashier with passion and the cashier could not care less. When the old lady doesn’t get a response, she pulls a .357 from her handbag, fires into the ceiling, and demands to speak to the manager.

That’s all we’ve got for now. This is where most people go to Discuss and start trying to find the source of conflict. “Well she wouldn’t have fired the gun if the cashier had responded, so what’s responding?” they might say. But looking for the source of conflict in the beginnings of an idea is the wrong way to go about it. Don’t look for subtext that you accidentally put there. Be assertive! Take charge! Decide your own message and meaning! :fist: Haha.

So with that idea for a scene, we somehow come up with a gist of “running a race”. Wait, huh? How can that scene’s conflict be sourced in “running a race”? Well, that’s the authors job to decide. My suggestion is that the old lady’s only son is running this dangerous race and it has set her on her last nerve, so when the cashier didn’t respond, the old lady went off. And now we have a source of conflict that has actually expanded our idea into a direction that we purposely took it. We gave the story the perspective that running a race creates conflict. And if you ask the old lady, she’d have no idea why she went off. She’d just say she didn’t know, that she just got so angry. Only the audience, author, and the Storymind know that this scene proves the message that running a race creates conflict.


This is awesome!

And, I think it will certainly help, insofar as going from a form to a story. Or from an idea without context to one with it.

But, the other direction would be just as important. If you have written the story, and have the seeds of the message there, then I would say it does make sense to ask “What is the source of conflict?” Of course, even in this case, I think it is still correct to say that the source of conflict should be what gets the gist, though. It’s kind of an opposite look at the same notion.

I think it’s of a similar nature to the ploter-pantser question. At what point does it make sense to install the conflict from an idea-as-source versus extract the source from an idea-as-conflict?

(Ultimately, I think it might come down to Conceiving vs Conceptualizing. :slight_smile: )


Thanks, Hunter.

Of course. I meant to leave some room for that in my comment. But if structure is-or comes from-what you want to say, and you know your idea contains some seed of what you want to say then definitely work to pull that out. The above is definitely geared more toward someone who has an idea and nothing to say.

The point, however indirectly made, is that gists aren’t simply events that happen and are problematic. They’re what your story is trying to prove to the audience. If you have an idea for a scene where something physical leads to conflict and the scene is proving some point about the something, then choose Physics. If that scene is not trying to prove the something physical, then decide what it is trying to prove—maybe something universal? Psychological?—and use the story to show how that scene full of physics actually proves Universe or Psychology.