Friday, March 18, 2011
Things Best Left Unsaid -- Writing Subtext
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, because one of the most difficult things to write about is subtext. One reason for this is that there are various meanings for the term. Some people say subtext to mean the overall theme of a story. This is not what I mean.
I am talking about all the things within a scene that are not being said between characters, but are really what the scene is about. Subtext can be very powerful emotionally and will engage your audience—and it is something that is pretty much always missing from the work of beginning writers. In amateurish works, characters always say just what they mean and mostly the scenes lie flat.
Why does subtext work? Because it gives the reader/viewer something to do. They are actively putting pieces together and seeing underneath appearances. When subtext is well constructed, it doesn’t look like writing at all.
But how do you write subtext? How do you write the unspoken? There is no right answer for this, but there are a few tricks.
The most familiar form of subtext is sarcasm—people saying one thing while meaning to communicate the opposite meaning: “Nice tie.” This is probably the most basic form, and not very sophisticated, but there are others.
There is a film called Tales of Manhattan where we follow a topcoat from one owner to the next, telling a story for each owner. It is really a series of shorts, and some segments are better than others. In one of the segments, a man who is an avid hunter takes a dashing young man into his trophy room to show off his prized hunting gun.
He shows the gun and they talk about it. The hunter talks about what a good, accurate gun it is and all of the great hunting he’s done with it. The scene could be mundane and boring, but it isn’t. It’s tense. When I show this clip in my classes the room is quiet and all eyes are riveted. The scene is all subtext.
This scene works because of the set-up. It has been established earlier that the hunter’s wife is having an affair with the young man. The woman also warns the young man that her husband has been drinking, and that he’s a little crazy when he drinks.
It is after this set-up that the drunken hunter takes the young man into his trophy room of mounted animal heads and shows off his gun, talks about its accuracy and how he likes to hunt. The whole scene is a threat.
Now, I have a writer friend who says this is not subtext because since one character has a gun, the scene could only be about one guy talking about killing the other. But you could take the same dialogue and make it an unwanted sexual advance, for instance.
I use this scene in classes because it is easily understood and can make it so that people learn to recognize what subtext looks and feels like.
There is another type of subtext that is harder to spot. Writer and director Robert Benton is a master of subtext. The things he doesn’t write are beautiful. He knows what not to say better than almost anyone.
In his film Places in the Heart a woman’s husband has been shot dead. She and her sister prepare the body for the funeral. The body is spread out on the very table where the family was earlier having dinner together.
As the woman and her sister prepare the body in silence, the woman begins to talk about all her life with her husband and ends with talking about a scar on his body that she had never seen before. She says she never knew about that scar.
The subtext is that they still had more living to do. That there were still things to learn about each other. It is beautifully simple and powerful. And it is subtext.
Another kind of subtext is to have characters talk about the opposite of what is going on in the scene. It has been pointed out by others that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, two characters who are obviously about to die, spend their time talking about the future.
In Of Mice and Men, one character has a speech he repeats about what he would do if he didn’t have to take care of the other one. It’s clear from his actions that he loves his friend, but that fact that he says the opposite makes the speech sweet without become saccharine.
There is still another kind of subtext that is just the unexpressed emotion of a scene. I was once trying to explain to a playwright that the order of scene could make all of the difference. I said you could write a scene where a man is the life of a party. He smiles and jokes with everyone and he drinks to drunkenness. The more he drinks the funnier and friendlier he gets.
In the next scene he gets a letter telling him that his beloved son has died in the war.
In this order the first scene could get boring over time because really nothing is happening. It is a static scene and would get old quickly.
The scene where he gets the letter might have emotion because there is such a shift in tone from happiness to sadness. This is the order most writers would construct. But imagine the reverse: A man gets a letter that he beloved son has died. In the next scene he gets drunk and laughs and jokes. And drinks some more.
Now the audience feels the pain he is not expressing. They know he is drinking and joking because he is sad. Now the scene can last a while because it is layered. It could be agonizing to watch and at the same time riveting. The party scene has more depth, but only the order of scenes has changed. The writing itself is the same as before.
It can be hard mastering the constructing of subtext, but if one learns how to use it you can add a depth to your stories and scenes that will give them a professional sheen.