There came a point halfway through reading Linda Seger’s 2nd edition of Writing Subtext when I had an epiphany about what makes a script actually great. There comes a point in the writing process, that is actually during rewrites, on the second or third draft (or more), when your focus changes.
In his instant classic, and must-have for any writer, On Writing, Stephen King describes the process of writing as being akin to the work of an archeologist. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”
There comes a point when you have found your story. The drafting process is where the writer finds the story. Later there comes a point when writing actually becomes about the story: the writer knows what it’s about, and the process changes. It becomes about making the story richer. It’s about expressing the story in a way that is both real for the characters and the events that are shown, and staged in a way that will be cinematic.
That when subtext kicks in, and that’s where Linda Seger can help. After having published several seminal, best-selling screenwriting books and having been a script consultant for decades, Writing Subtext is a small book – much smaller than Robert McKee’s behemoth Story, for instance – which gets straight to the point.
Rarely do people actually say what they mean. A woman walks into the living room, says to her husband “I’m upset about what you said last night at dinner.” When does that happen? … Right. Now you’ve got a scene. The image of her pacing during the mundane conversation, biting her nails and playing with her hair will say a lot more than her words: this is about the character.
The part that’s about the audience is the contrast. It’s putting two and two side by side, and letting the audience figure out that they’re counting to four. That’s why subtext will add to your script: the audience will be engaged and will remember your film (provided you get a director who know how to milk the material you hand them). You will make their brain work and they’ll thank you for it.
Dr. Linda Seger has written many classic screenwriting books including Making A Good Script Great, and Creating Unforgettable Characters, which have proven themselves to be invaluable resources to any film writer.
Writing Subtext, however isn’t about structure, screenwriting, or how to create a beat sheet for your story or character-building. There’s a lot of other resources for you to study that (go to the usual suspects of McKee, Truby, Snyder and others). It is, however, crucial to not just make a good screenplay, but write a great one and Seger explores all the aspects in which you can express subtext, “what lies beneath”, as the full title of the book suggests.
The late, great Mike Nichols had a definition for his work as a director, which he stole from the revolutionary Elia Kazan: that directing is about creating the events that take place, which are in the text, beneath the text, in and around the text. How do you go about doing it? First, you have to have a movie script that has that quality of being entirely natural and entirely poetic at the same time.
Linda Seger manages to go in depth in a wonderfully succinct and precise way. She explores all the aspects in which subtext can be expressed: dialogue, description, images, action, genre, character names… The examples she uses are incredibly eloquent, and also span a wide range of films: from the use of phallic symbols in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde to express the sexual subtext and give more relevance to the movie in times of uprising and the sexual revolution to Hitchcock and Billy Wilder using innuendos in dialogue in order to please the censors in the era of the Hays Code, all the way to Avatar.
All those symbols that are carefully chosen and pondered by the filmmakers may go unnoticed by the audience at first glance, but they are what conveys a theme or a message more or less subconsciously to the viewer. They participate in what 17th-century philosopher Leibniz described as “small sensations”: “It must be the case that I have some perception of the movement of each wave on the shore if I am to be able to apperceive that which results from the movements of all the waves put together, namely the mighty roar which we hear by the sea.” Achieving such an effect is where the craft and the art of the writer merge, and what Linda Seger helps you with in this book.
At 150 pages, it won’t take you long to read Writing Subtext once, but you will want to go back to it time and time again, at every turning point in your next script (and every single one after that).
Writing Subtext, by Dr. Linda Seger is published by Michael Wiese Productions.