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Excellent Book Exploring Subtext
on May 10, 2011
My wife and I have something we call "wife speak." On an occasional evening, she will ask me: "Do we have any ice cream?" I could easily say "yes" or "no" but what she's really asking is: "Can you check if we have ice cream, grab a bowl, scoop out a scoop - but not too much, drizzle some chocolate sauce on it and bring it to me?" The first question is subtext - the second question is "on the nose."
It was with great anticipation when I opened up Linda Seger's book "Writing Subtext" - first because her book "How to Make a Good Script Great" is in my top three of favorite screenwriting books. The second was that I was looking for a book on subtext. It's one of the hardest things to explain to fledgling screenwriters (and to some not-so-fledgling screenwriters, too).
The way I've always described subtext is: "This is what your movie is REALLY about." When "The Deer Hunter" came out (in 1977!) I read a letter to the editor that described it as a terrible film about guys who get drunk and hunt deer. Obviously this person was looking at the film only on a surface level - not what it was REALLY about: love, sacrifice, friendship.
Linda Seger, though, rips the subtext out of those two basic concepts. Where I looked at subtext only in the items of dialogue and "what the story is about" she actually takes it much further. Relating subtext to both those basic concepts but also taking it the levels of gestures and actions, images and metaphors and even genres. And, honestly, I've never really looked at that way - but created it nonetheless.
In the third week of my class - I have a class called "Showing Character" - it is this class where we explore all the various opportunities the writer has in using visual clues to show character. Everything from clothing, tattoos, cars, etc. I had never thought of it as subtext - just what you do when you create characters. Redefining it as subtext is brilliant, though, because that's what you're REALLY doing. So many scripts I've read where the writer writes: "Joe drives up in a car." WHAT KIND? "Julie watches TV." WHAT SHOW? "Bill has a tattoo on his upper arm." WHAT OF?
Ms. Seger does a great job sprinkling multiple film examples throughout her book. But I'll suggest a few more: "Rear Window" has amazing subtext in the first 3 minutes. The beginnings of the film "The Breakfast Club" and "The Big Chill" also do a masterful job getting across multiple characters in very quick succession. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This is when writing really becomes fun - where you have the story on one level but then, under the surface, into the depths of the subtext you have where the story really becomes alive and real and amazing.
Finally a book that teaches the writer how to use subtext to tell their story, not only through dialogue but through actions as well. This is a book that will truly bring life to your screenplay and turn your possible good script into a potentially GREAT script.
Final note: of course, when I ask my wife if there is any ice cream my usual subtext is: "Are we going to `cuddle' tonight?" But then she just brings me a bowl of ice cream...maybe I should use less subtext.