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Screw subtext, who needs it anyway

I have a lot of writing to get done in the next couple of weeks, and it's going to take a lot of focus, discipline, and marshalling of my skills to do it. I'm feeling a bit frustrated right now, and though I know I'll work through it, I want to bitch about it a little.

My writing is too obvious sometimes. I suck at writing subtext. When I try to include it, it never reads and the audience never perceives it. When I try to make it clearer, it becomes obvious again and stops being subtext at all. Everything I've been writing lately feels way too on-the-nose, which it really can't be to serve the purpose. Even all my studying of Mad Men to learn how to do it better doesn't seem to be paying off.

I often feel like I know what I need to accomplish with my writing and have no idea how to accomplish it. I know what needs to happen in a given scene, but I can't figure out a way to do it that doesn't seem contrived or too direct. Everybody just says exactly what they're thinking, or what they need to in order to make the plot go forward. It comes off feeling so unnatural, not believeable at all.

Also the S key on my iPad keyboard is wearing out. Not really a craft issue, but it's bugging the hell out of me having to push S twice sometimes just to get the letter.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 17th, 2014 04:08 pm (UTC)
I am entirely too amused by the mental image of trying so hard at subtext that your "s" key breaks :)

Other than that, I have some thoughts on this topic, though I don't know how helpful I'll be. I honestly tend towards the opaque rather than the transparent.

1) Not everyone has to get the subtext. I've read some (published, sometimes Hugo-nominated) stories that left me scratching my head, or that I only fully understood after re-reading or having it explained to me. The folks who "get it" will love you even more for making them work/making them feel smart. The classic example of this, to me, is Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald." It is an astonishingly clever story whose main plot twist requires a strongish understanding of Sherlock Holmes. I love it BECAUSE of that, even though I had to go and re-read "The Empty House" to fully understand it.

2) You can always take stuff out. In the first draft of "Powder of Sympathy" I pretty much exactly spelled out what Crowley was up to; then I realized it was much more interesting if I left the implications vague, and just showed Dunsany's reaction to it. Now I get the reaction of "I don't know what happened!" from some people, but I also get some really interesting theories that are better than I could even come up with ;)
Jul. 21st, 2014 06:44 pm (UTC)
Armchair observation from the non-professional, so take this for what it's worth: in my experience, good subtext is only half about the writing, at least when you're talking about stage and screen. A *lot* of subtext comes from the direction and acting, and doesn't necessarily exist in the words at all, save as intentional ambiguity. The best subtext is often expressed more in body language than anything else.

Even in the pure written word, good subtext is often ambiguity that only becomes clear as subtextual foreshadowing in retrospect, when a later chapter makes obvious what was going on...
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

My productions:

Upcoming Productions:

MRS. HAWKING part 2 and 3

at the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016

presented by The Chameleon's Dish

Vivat Regina
by Phoebe Roberts

at 2PM


Base Instruments
by Phoebe Roberts

at 6PM

Saturday, May 13th 2017
at 274 Moody Street, Waltham, MA

Other Achievements:

"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
Quarter Finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition 2013

"Adonis" screenplay
Top Ten Percent in the Bluecat Screenwriting Contest 2015

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