As of this writing, I have been working on my book, THE RULES – MARSHALL, for four years. Four very long years. Much has happened in that time that has affected my writing style, and quite dramatically. I’ve learned some of the newbie mistakes I was making; filter words, purple prose, and worst of all, writing on the nose. I wrote Part 1 of Why Show Don’t Tell two years ago, and looking back at it, it’s not great. I’m a better writer now.
While I have studied the craft over the years, reading books and blogs and everything else I could find, I have to admit that I learned more about writing not from books about writing, so much as YouTubes about screenplays. Most specifically, learning about the importance of subtext.
One of the best I’ve seen thus far is the Art of the Story’s two-part YouTube on Dialogue. It’s 14:08, one of the quickest a-ha moments I’ve ever experienced.
In it, Adam Skelter posits: “Subtext is the emotional charge of an idea, the intentions of the characters.” This is important because if you follow the Show Don’t Tell rule (you’re not telling the reader your character’s intentions on the nose), the subtext is the underlying meaning. What the characters really want, what they are really trying to accomplish, how they really feel, often despite what they say. Or don’t say.
In Andrew Stanton’s Ted Talk on Clues to a Great Story, he discusses the Unifying Theory of 2+2, a technique that allows for such innovative storytelling as Wall-E. Stanton says “Don’t give your audience the number four. Give them 2 + 2, and let them work out 4”. He explains it better than I can, but I very thoughtfully linked to that spot in the YouTube for you. The whole thing is worth a watch, however.
This is what separates good writers from great writers. Good stories from great stories. Not because of elitism, mind you. It’s not the prescriptive expectation of literary devices to validate a story. No. It’s axiomatic; telling the story in the best possible way to impact your reader; promoting interaction between your reader and the story.
Wait, why did she do X? Oh! Because she’s really feeling Y!
Writing with subtext is using the theory of 2+2. It’s not just being obtuse or obfuscating meaning from your reader. It’s not being facetious or ironic. It’s giving your readers enough information to deduce the meaning, and letting them experience the fulfillment of that a-ha moment. Often that begins with some degree of confusion or curiosity. The reader might think to themselves, Wait, why did she say that? Why did she do that? As they read on, the character’s intentions/meaning should become more clear. Oh! She’s feeling ____ about this! And look at you, you subtextual writer you, you just ingratiated the reader into your story. You just pulled them in.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps put on a subtextual clinic in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but don’t be fooled by their masterful performances, behind the genius acting (and cinematography, design and score) is a genius screenplay. Another great example is Terence Winter writing for Scorcese in Wolf of Wall Street. The yacht scene is just one of many examples from that film that are absolutely dripping with subtextual tension.
Some other examples:
- Y Tu Mamá También. The entire movie is subtext, and it’s available on Netflix.
- Adaptation. Charlie Kaufman is quite possibly the greatest contemporary screenwriter in the business. This movie alone validates Cage’s entire career. Available on YouTube.
- Good Will Hunting. Yeah I know this one gets called out, and there’s a reason for it. Watch it.
- Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård handle some very difficult material with flawless grace, but credit to Phoebe Glockner and Marielle Heller on writing it in the first place. Amazon.
- The Bigger Splash. Matthias Schoenarts, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson all subtexting like nobody’s business. YouTube.
- Carol. Granted, Cate Blanchett is a peerless, riveting actor, and Rooney Mara keeps stride with her. Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation is nothing short of a masterpiece. Available on Vudu.
“These are all movies!”
Yes, I know, and I could list fifty others. (Pretty much anything by Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Gillian Flynn, Luca Guadagnino, Charlie Kaufman, or Martin Scorsese, or anything including Cate Blanchett, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton or Tilda Swinton.) The reason is because movies are more palatable than pedantic literary rules books, and they help the writer to better visualize what they’re trying to accomplish. You can learn about symbolism and cinematographic storytelling, which are very effective tools in writing. If you want to craft an immersive setting, read Stella Adler’s Art of Acting. Learn acting “method” to really dig into the marrow of a character through Sanford Meisner’s On Acting.
Nothing has taught me more about writing subtext than watching actors, and watching breakdowns of storytelling devices in movies. So while yes, you should definitely pick up John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story, don’t miss the chance to learn more by passing up The Art of Story and Lessons from the Screenplay.
Whether you’re Maurice Sendak or John Steinbeck or Neil Gaiman or Chuck Palahniuk, writing is writing. You can be visual, you can be traditional, you can be metaphorical, or any number of approaches. But ultimately, it is the job of the writer to weave a story that pulls the reader in. For a time, the audience is trusting you to take them on a journey they might not otherwise witness. They want to forget they’re reading.
And what could draw a reader deeper into a story’s text than subtext?