Thursday, November 29, 2012

What I Really Meant Was...

            I touched on the idea of subtext a few months back, but I realize I didn’t give any real suggestions or examples of ways to improve things in this area.  So I wanted to revisit this and maybe make the post a bit more useful.  Well, as useful as anything I post here is...
            I don’t have cable, as I’ve mentioned here and a few other places.  When everything went digital it was a big thing for my lovely lady and I because we suddenly had about two dozen more channels and access to a lot more programming.  Granted, this is exactly why we didn’t want cable, but... well, I’ve become a big fan of Svengoolie.
            One of our channels shows lots of old movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I happened to catch the opening of a little film called Chain Gang.  It’s from 1950, written by the very prolific Howard Green.  That date’s important because it’s the height of the Hays Code, a very restrictive set of guidelines that prohibited showing—or even discussing—a number of things on film.  Sex, violence, language, pretty much anything that could be considered immoral by somebody.  All the stuff  Family Guy takes for granted today.  Because of this, screenwriters of this era had to either write the blandest material possible or become masters of subtext.
            Early in Chain Gang, two reporters—a man and a woman—are having lunch at a burger shack across from the courthouse.  Since they’re from rival papers, they’re not actually talking to one another, they just keep asking rhetorical questions to the cook which are intended for each other.  And the clever subtext of the very quick and witty conversation—or set of conversations--goes something like this...

Him:  Well we can see where the trial’s going.  Let’s blow this off and go back to my place for a few hours.

Her:  I don’t think it’s so open and shut.  And besides, I’ve got a job to do.

Him:  I’ve got a job for you.

Her:  And I’d be more than willing to do it for you if I didn’t have this one already.

            Keep in mind, they weren’t saying any of this.  They were asking the cook about the time, relationships, work, and numerous other unrelated topics.  And after three or four minutes the cook asks “Look, are you two going to order or not?”
            The male reporter looks at his counterpart in a happy, slightly naughty way and says “I’ll have a burger—hold the onions.”
            The woman chuckles, shakes her head, and says, “Make that two burgers, Joe—and you can put onions on them.”
            Any question who won that unspoken discussion?
            Subtext is the art of the conversation beneath the one your characters are having out loud.  It's the flipside of on-the-nose dialogue.  That hidden meaning doesn’t have to be miles beneath the spoken one.  It also doesn’t have to be rich and elaborate and layered with exquisite meaning.  But in good dialogue, it’s almost always there.
            Here’s a couple of suggestions for some methods that can bring your dialogue up to the level of an sixty year old movie...

The Reverse—One of the simplest ways to use subtext is for a character to declare the exact opposite of what they really mean.  I’ve mentioned the show Keen Eddie a few times, where the two main characters would constantly yell “I hate you!” back and forth at each other.  At one point or another, we’ve all probably been in the position of saying something along the lines of “It’s okay, I really didn’t want the promotion.  It was too much work, anyway.”
            A lot of times the reverse is just sarcasm, because sarcasm is all about subtext. Odds are all of us have made a suggestion where one of our friends has rolled their eyes and said “Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that.”  There’s a bit at the start of Roxanne (a movie loaded with subtext) where Daryl Hannah’s titular character is locked outside of her house wearing... well, nothing, and has to sneak her way to the nearby fire station for help.  When fire chief Charlie (Steve Martin) asks if she wants a coat or a blanket, she gives a nervous laugh and says “No, I really wanted to hang out nude in this bush in the freezing cold.”

The Friend— How many times have you read a story or seen a show where someone goes to the doctor and talks about the embarrassing problem “their friend” has.  Or maybe my character knows a guy who got really confused by how to install that Space Marine videogame patch, and was wondering if you could explain it in simple terms he could tell this guy next time they hang out.  This is another easy form of subtext, because I’m pushing all the emotions and thoughts onto another character altogether—even if it’s a nonexistent character.

The Blank—Kind of like the reverse method, the blank is a slightly trickier way of doing subtext.  It’s when a character demonstrates their opinion on something by offering no opinion.  Sometimes they do it by ignoring the topic, like when Yakko asks his brother Wakko’s opinion on Phoebe and Wakko instead wonders aloud how much the DJ gets paid at this club.  Other times Wakko might just dance around it, saying he doesn’t know Phoebe that well or giving a very vague non-answer (“Well, how well can you really know anyone, right?”)

The Next Step—If you’ve ever read about someone ordering a double or triple drink before they break some bad news to their tense friend, you know this method.  It’s when a character shows they’re one or two steps ahead.  I’m not thinking about now, I’m thinking about fifteen minutes from now.  Through their words or actions, the character’s saying “I know where this is going and I know how it’s going to end, even if no one else does.”  If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you might recall that in the Eleventh Doctor’s premiere episode writer Stephen Moffat packed an incredible amount of subtext into the single word, “run.”

The Metaphor—All of us have been in a conversation where what we’re talking about is not what we’re really talking about.  This method of using subtext is a huge part of flirting.  If you ever watched Seinfeld, you probably remember the time George misread a woman’s invitation to come up for coffee at the end of their date, said goodnight, and drove happily away (and then spent days on the phone leaving messages explaining that he thought she was talking about coffee, not coffee, because he would’ve loved to have coffee with her).  Eddie Izzard played with this one, too, and explained that “do you want to come up for coffee” is essentially the universal code for “sex is on!”  You’ve probably seen this method used in organized crime stories, too.  Characters in these tales will discuss “disposing of assets” and “making a definitive statement” or “preparing a welcome home party.”  I bet just by tying these statements to crime, the implied subtext has sparked a predictable set of images in all of your minds.

            And there’s five ways to create subtext.
            It’s worth mentioning that all of these methods need a bit of skill and practice, because sometimes people yell “I hate you” because... well, they hate you (sorry).  Every now and then we really do have a friend who needs help with something.  And if the Minister of Burundi asks if you want coffee, well... don’t start unbuttoning your shirt. 
            The trick with subtext is making sure it’s clear what I really mean.  So I can’t be so blunt that I’m not really hiding anything, but I also can’t be so subtle that people think my characters are just saying what they mean with no subtext at all.  It’s a fine balancing act, and it’ll take a few tries to get it right.
            Heck, I know this one guy who couldn’t pull off good subtext for years.
            Next time, I’m thinking about doing a big piece on structure again, because I got a nice bit of praise recently for the last time I did it.  But I might have something quick to say before that about crossing genre lines.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The B Story

            Okay, one day late.  But I can blame it on a food coma...
            So, true story.  I watched the season three premiere of The X-Files with Rick Springfield.  Yep, that Rick Springfield.  He of “Jessie’s Girl.”
            I was dayplaying on a show called High Tide, and for that day’s filming the production had rented two big hotel suites in downtown San Diego.  My friend Alice worked on the show, and she and I were debating if we’d finish filming in time to catch the premiere of The X-Files that night.  We were huge fans, after all, and there was no Tivo or DVR at this point in ancient history.  I’m not even sure I owned a working VCR at the time.
            Then the locations manager pointed out the obvious—we were in a hotel suite that had three televisions in it.  Big televisions!  If we promised to keep a low profile, we could just stay late and watch in style.
            No, you perverts.  We were just friends.  In fact, I was friends with her boyfriend.
            Anyway, after wrap we flopped down on the king-sized bed, turned on the television, and prepared to find out what happened to Mulder in that half-buried train car that had been set on fire by the Cigarette-Smoking Man (remember that cliffhanger?).  And while we were waiting for the show to begin, Rick Springfield wandered in.  Yeah, that sounds crazy, but he was the star of High Tide, so the chances of him showing up weren’t that unlikely.  Rick climbed onto the bed between me and Alice and asked what was on.  We explained the X-Files premiere was about to start.  Rick confessed he hadn’t seen any episodes. 
            Now, in all fairness to him, it wasn’t THE X-FILES yet, it was still that geeky cult show on Fox.  Another thing Rick didn’t realize was that Alice and I were those cult geeks and we took The X-Files very seriously.  Very, very seriously.  It wasn’t uncommon for her and her boyfriend Greg to have folks over to watch episodes.  And one firm rule was that you did not talk during the show, because nobody wanted to miss anything.
            Needless to say, less than a minute into the episode Rick turned to Alice and asked who the Cigarette-Smoking Man was.  Alice shhhhushhed him.  Another minute passed before he asked about the setting.  She shhhhushhed him again and gave him a little slap on the arm.  Agent Scully showed up and he asked something else.  This is when I first backhanded him on the arm.  Not hard, but enough to emphasize Alice’s shhhhushhing.  She smacked him again at his next question.  I hit him on the one after that and we shhhhushhed him at the same time.
            So, aside from shameless name-dropping, what’s the point of this story?
            The point is that it’s very hard for someone to get into any tale that’s focusing more on the B story than the A story.
            As the name implies, the A story is the priority.  The A-Team.  Section A seating.  Getting an A on a paper.  The A story is the main focus of my particular tale, be it novel or screenplay.   If I pick up a copy of  The Hunger Games, the back cover’s going to tell me it’s about a girl fighting for her life in an arena as part of a decades-old tribute.  The A story is what should be most important, and it’s where I want the reader’s attention focused most of the time.
            The B story, of course, is secondary.  It’s the subplot or maybe a parallel story that just doesn’t have the weight or repercussions of the main story.  Maybe the supporting characters are dealing with something.  Perhaps it’s the main characters dealing with a less-important or less-pressing issue.  Or it might even be a bit more important than what they’re dealing with right now, but they still have to finish dealing with this issue right now.  Again, in The Hunger Games books, Katniss is torn between two boys she has strong feelings for.  But this doesn’t override the fact that she’s fighting for her life in a deathmatch.  There’s also a strong political element to the story, but this also lurks in the background rather than demanding attention.
            All seems pretty straightforward, yes?
            Now, I mentioned up above that the A story is where I want my readers to be focused.  It’s where I should be focusing, too.  However, in a lot of genre stuff—books, television, comics—the B story can get too powerful.  As the writers, sometimes we get too concerned with this big universe we’re building and all the back story and set ups and reveals that are going to come somewhere down the line.  And when we do this, we start to forget the A story—what’s going on right now.
            Now, we all understand that eventually the B story catches up with the A story and overwhelms it.  It becomes the A story, and probably a few new B stories have developed in the meantime.  This is the point where people start telling you “Well, you’ve got to watch it from the beginning if you want to understand what’s going on.” With an ongoing series—books or television—this almost becomes unavoidable.  Many long-running series eventually hit the point where people can no longer jump in, because all those setups are paying off and questions are being answered.  If you pick up the third book in the Hunger Games series, it’s pretty much all about the politics... and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t understand any of it if you haven’t read the first two books.  LOST didn’t pick up a lot of new viewers in season five.   Neither did Supernatural in season nine.  Not many people decided to start reading Game of Thrones with the fourth book.
            The question is, why would I want to start a story at this point?  Why begin at a place where most people are going to immediately feel alienated?  What benefit do I get by structuring a story in such a way that people immediately think it should be structured another way?
            This is a recurring problem I see again and again.  Some writers get so involved with their elaborate B stories that they forget they need to be telling an A story.  There’s tons of flashbacks to cool stuff that happened months ago or mysterious hints about things to come... but nothing’s going on in the here and now.  I’ve seen stories that focus on people who are essentially supporting characters in the story.  Not in a clever, Mary Reilly way—where Dr. Jekyll’s housemaid is the main character and the events in his home are the backdrop—but in a very boring way where the focus of our attention isn’t doing anything while other folks do all the cool stuff.
           That’s a good analogy, actually.  My A story is to my B story as my main characters are to my supporting characters.  In the same way that any character needs a real reason to be part of your story, a plot line needs a reason to exist, too.  If my A story serves no purpose except to be what I’m referencing the B story from... well, I really don’t need an A story, do I?  I should just be telling the B story as the A story.
            Y’see, Timmy, your A story should always be what’s going on right now.  Your B story, as the name implies, is secondary.  It hangs out in the background.  It doesn’t do as much.  It’s not as important, because it’s the B story.  If it was important, it would be the A story.
            So figure out which story you’re telling.  And tell it.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about subtlety and a very obscure old movie called Chain Gang.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Mona Lisa

            Dear God, I’m running behind here.  So very sorry.  There was Halloween (which I got kind of drunk during) and an election (which I got kind of drunk during) and then an old friend was in town (you’re sensing the pattern, I’m sure)...
            Anyway, I don’t have much time, but I didn’t want to neglect the blog any longer.  Mostly because I’m sick of Thom mocking me in the comments.  So here’s a quick note from playwright, screenwriter, and Nicholl Fellowship recipient Arthur Jolly.  Arthur made a brilliant observation about the Mona Lisa a few months back, and--being a lazy bastard--I saved it for an occasion just like this...
            “If the Mona Lisa had a clumsy red brush stroke, a glob of scarlet somehow left unfixed on the side of her head, people seeing the painting would hardly notice that the rest of it is a masterpiece, they'd say ‘Why is that brushstroke there?’
            “When people read your script, that one line that's wrong - they'll notice it. Fix it.”

            Next week, even with Thanksgiving, I promise to tell the story of punching Rick Springfield and how it relates to world building.