freelance-anthem

Eric Heisserer On Subtext in Screenplays

caseymoore2:

From his twitter:

- All right, diving in: The demon in the room I want to talk about today is subtext. Subtext makes me suffer so. Oh, the suffering

- Because its delicious presence in a script is the mark of good writing, and its inverse is the sign of bad writing. But there’s a catch.

- Playwrights tend to rock subtext, because they have to. The dialogue has to convey more than face value because that’s all there is.

- Consequently, people in the theater world pay close attention to the writing. They look at the words carefully. You can dine on Shakespeare.

- But in film and TV subtext can also exist in imagery. You want every shot to be suggestive of something more than what’s merely right there.

- And you need to, to attract talented directors and actors. They know quality, they’ve done theater, they CRAVE subtext.

- And of course, writing it is incredibly hard! Let’s not overlook that, shall we? It’s alchemy. It’s like crafting a really great joke.

- In subtext, everyone builds the punchline in their heads without you telling it. Without subtext, you’re explaining the joke to them.

- There are plenty of avenues to subtext, of course. And as script writers we have dialogue, narrative description, wrylies, etc. to play in.

- One Oscar-nominated writer likes to use dialogue in her narrative for it—
DAVID gestures at them, “I’m fine, whatever.”

- And just on this tangent, what I like about that option is that we get the meaning of the gesture without telling the actor what to do

- But okay, here’s where it gets even WORSE for us as writers. Because guess what, we’re making a transitory document. Which means…

- People need to grasp the subtext in a scene or else it will turn out crap.

- And by “people” I mean everyone between you and the finished film/episode/whatever. And here’s how that gets tricky:

- Your DIRECTOR and your ACTORS will want as much subtext as possible, because it gives them room to do THEIR jobs well (if they’re good).

- The people who get the script BEFORE them tend to fear subtext because they can’t be sure how it will land on the screen. So… notes.

- Holy buckets, the notes you will get about limiting, destroying, removing, reducing, and nuking subtext. Oh man.

- 1. “You know, I think you need to put a finer point on what she’s saying in this scene…”

- 2. “What is she really saying here? I get that, yeah, but can you make that idea louder?”

- 3. "Just put the words in his mouth; just so the audience knows what he’s feeling."

- From strange to awkwardly porny, there are a hundred different ways execs will tell you to kill subtext.

- They are sometimes right to do that! Not often, in my experience, but sometimes. Because finding the right balance in the writing is HARD.

- So, what do we do? Seriously, I’m asking. Why do you think I’m drinking on a Sunday? Well, yes, because it’s Sunday but yeah.

- Here’s what I’ve discovered on this terrible path of writing layered content with subtext, and you can use what works for you…

- There is the option of simply “kicking the ball downfield” — writing essentially “this is how we feel when we see this scene play out.”

- That spawns description like: “This is the most heartbreaking moment of her life, and we’re all in tears at the end of it.”

- BAH TO THAT, I SAY. That is my mouth writing checks. That’s me saying, “Fuck it, this isn’t my job, it’s someone else’s, I’m outtie.”

- We have a responsibility as writers to know what the characters are feeling AND how they both hide and express it in the same moment.

- Not down to the tiniest gesture (because again we’re invading the domain of the actor usually) but it has to have more going on than “Here!”

- So the demon I wrestle with is: How much do I need to say on the page that lets the fearful types know the director/actor will rock it?

- This is where the iterative process can actually help a writer.

- There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer starts to take a bite of Maggie’s BD cake, but Marge has made a spare for him to mess up.

- We sometimes have to do that as writers: Build a draft where all the emotions are signposts, and people talk like NOBODY TALKS IN REAL LIFE.

- And then later, before going out to talent, we offer the artful draft full of subtext, the one that will land capable voices.

- Of course to pull this off you need conspirators in the machine. You need a clever producer or junior somewhere.

- Outside of that option, the only one I’ve made work part of the time is by building a script with subtextual shorthand, for lack of better.

- In that, I preserve the dialogue best I can where all the subtext lives, but I “explain the punchline” in the narrative immediately after.

- This helps a lot since actors are primarily focused on dialogue. Especially those trained from theater. (And those are the ones you want.)

- TANGENT: You do not want an actor whom you often hear “cuts well together.” That’s not a marathon runner, there.

- By that I mean someone whose performance must be assembled by your Dr Frankenstein editor from a large volume of takes/shots.

- Subtext works really damn well when it’s this sandbox you build for the people taking the script from you to produce the thing.

- And! Oh! Sometimes you can paint subtext in negative space. By that I mean, write to what the scene isn’t.

- Or you can make bold the juxtaposition of what’s being said and what is being felt or meant on the page.

- Like:

JOE
(please stay)
Just get out. Go.

- This kind of dynamic isn’t easily swatted by rushed execs trying to understand the purpose of a scene. Usually.

- Point is: We have a lofty goal here of trying to deliver something that works on at least two levels. You know?

- In our writing, what our characters say is not the truth, but it’s a map to the truth.

- When people actually say what they feel, it makes them terribly vulnerable. And vulnerability is nearly extinct thanks to the Internet

- So, my gorgeous monsters, let’s keep finding and sharing clever ways to deliver subtext in our stories. That shit is tough, man.

two-things-productions

two-things-productions:

Of all the people I’ve ever asked about what it takes to be a filmmaker and how to get there the most consistent piece of advice has been: do, see, explore, and absorb so you can have something to write about. 

Things That Inspired Me This Week:

Note To Self: Listen to your instincts.

—C.

"It’s as though we have introduced the idea of self-judgement and being judged by others on an every day level as a matter of course, as a way of life, as a way of as a way of measuring ourselves every day and I think it contains a lot of difficulties."
Emma Thompson on the judgement of social media.

I absolutely love DP/30. So now I ask: How do you judge your experience?

Finally I came to a dead end, to a despair and desperation which few men have known, because there was no divorce between myself as writer and myself as a man: to fail as a writer was to fail as a man. And I failed. I realized that I was nothing—less than nothing—a minus quality. It was at this point, in the midst of the dead Sargasso Sea, so to speak, that I really began to write. I began from scratch, throwing everything overboard, even those things I loved. Immediately, I heard my own voice I was enchanted; the fact that it was a separate, distinct, unique voice sustained me. It didn’t matter to me if what I wrote should be considered bad. Good or bad dropped out of my vocabulary.
 Henry Miller from Reflections on Writing