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.

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
Embrace the fact that story structure is not best served by adhering to a preset screenplay formula. Instead respect the organic nature of Story by engaging your characters. Immerse yourself in their lives. Interview them. Listen to them via their monologues. Do biographies. Character sit-downs. Reflect on what you learn about who they are. Through that process, the story structure will emerge naturally. Plus you will have a collection of vibrant, multidimensional characters to tell their story.

“Character equals plot,” not “Formula equals plot.”
There is a difference between formula and structure.

READ THE ENTIRE BRILLIANT AND INSPIRING SERIES

I cannot recommend this enough. In fact to anyone who wants to create I would say it’s a mandatory read.

We’re responsible for what we put out there. Make it amazing.