November 30, 2012 / 3 Comments

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 Guytakes 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.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of fiction. It’s how your characters move beyond the page and become living, breathing people. In any sort of literature, it’s going to be the key to making them memorable. In screenplays, it’s going to be what makes them quotable.

Conversely, bad dialogue is the fastest way to make sure characters are dead to your readers. When someone speaks in flat, clumsy, expositional dialogue, it makes them unbelievable. And when a reader can’t believe in your characters, it means they can’t believe in your story.

There are a lot of mistakes I see coming up again and again in stories. Here are seven of the most common ones…

Contractions– One thing that always makes dialogue drag and sound forced is when every word is spelled out in full. A lot of people start out writing this way because they’re trying to follow all the rules of spelling and punctuation so they don’t get branded a rookie, and ironically… While this is a good practice for your prose, most people use contractions in every day speech, even judges, professors, and rich businessmen. Without them, dialogue sounds stilted, wooden, and off-kilter. If there’s a reason for someone to speak that way (ESL, robots, aliens, or what have you), then by all means do it. If your characters are regular, English-speaking mortals, though…

“I am willing to bet you will not act while a child is in danger.”

“I’m willing to bet you won’t act while a child’s in danger.”

“What is the number for the place that does not charge late fees?”

“What’s the number for the place that doesn’t charge late fees?

Notice that using contractions also drops your word count and page count.

On The Nose— Professional readers and writers talk about dialogue that’s “on the nose.” It’s when someone says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety or characterization whatsoever. It’s the difference between “Why are you constantly mean and disrespectful to me, Rob?” and “What the hell’s your problem, anyway?” Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose. Almost half the time it’s just exposition (see below). A good way to think of it is old radio-show dialogue, when people had to depend on only dialogue with no visuals at all.

“Come on, Jenkins! There’s only six more steps to the top of this staircase. You can make it.”

“You know I can never forgive you for the way you treated me back when we were in high school and I was in love with you.”

“I can’t eat the rest of this food. I’ll ask the waiter to pack it up so I can take it home with me for later.”

Follow the example of the late, lamented Keen Eddie, where at least once an episode Mark Valley and Sienna Miller would bellow or snap “I hate you!” “I hate you, too!” back and forth at each other in their shared London flat. While those words were pretty on the nose the first time they were yelled, across the show’s short life they came to mean the exact opposite– with no explanation needed.

Exposition—It was just last week I said exposition gets a bad rap. Expositional dialogue is what gives it that bad rap. Remember being a kid in school and being bored by textbooks or filmstrips below your level? That’s the boredom exposition gives your readers.

“You know, Doug, you’ve been my step-brother for seventeen years now, and I’m still stunned how bad you are at geography. You need to bone up on it, especially now that you’ve finally gotten your dream job of being a professional airline pilot.”

Use the Ignorant Stranger method as a guideline and figure out how much of your dialogue is crossing that line. If any character ever gives an explanation of something that the other characters in the room already should know (or your reader should know), cut that line. If it’s filled with necessary facts, find a better way to get them across.

Transcription– One thing years of interviews have taught me is that, with very few exceptions, people trip over themselves a lot verbally. We have false starts, we repeat phrases, we trail off, we make odd noises while we try to think of words. Anyone who’s ever read a strict word-for-word transcription of a conversation will find it’s awkward, hard to follow, and a lot gets lost without the exact inflection of certain words.

One of the worst things you can do is try to write dialogue in such an ultra-realistic manner. It will drive editors nuts and waste your word count on dozens of unnecessary lines.

“What I… I think you’ll find that what I wanted…what I meant to say, is that there are some wanna-be… some aspiring writers who follow directions- some aspiring writers who follow guidelines better than others, and they’re the ones who eventually, that is—I mean, if you can’t follow the rules you can’t expect to succeed, right?”

This sort of rambling can work great in spoken dialogue, but when it’s written on the page it’s lethal. Even if you’re trying to re-create Hugh Grant’s confusing confession in Four Weddings and a Funeral, keep it simple for now so you don’t scare off producers and investors..

Similarity– People are individuals, and we all have our own unique way of speaking. People from California don’t talk like people from Maine (I’ve lived almost two decades in each state, I know), people from Oxford don’t talk like people from ITT Tech, and armor-plated, heavily-armed mutants from Skaro don’t talk like Earthlings. In your writing, your characters need to be individuals as well, with their own tics and habits that make them distinct from the people around them. If you can’t tell who’s speaking without knowing the complete context or seeing the dialogue headers, you need to get back to work.

Accents– This is a common mistake by beginning writers. Accents, dialects, and odd speech tics that are written out drive readers and editors nuts. Now, there are a handful of professional writers who can do truly amazing accents in their dialogue, yes, but keep those facts in mind— Only a handful. Professionals. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re still on a lower rung of that ladder trying to impress an editor or producer.

“’ullo, dere, Guv’nah. Spara few shillin’s fur a fella Vetrin uf th’ Waa’?”

“Eh, mah frien’, why you go causin’ mah peeple such beeg problems?”

“If thiz iz yourrr wish, then my warrrriorz will drrraw back.”

Yeah, that last one’s an alien accent I came up with years back for a race that had tongues and beaks like birds. I lost five pages when I got rid of all those triple-Rs.

Show an accent by picking out one or two key words at most and making those the only words you show it with. If he or she’s Jamaican, stick with “mah” instead of “my.” For the Cockney fellow, keep the dropped H when he speaks. Past that, just write straight dialogue. Just the bare minimum reminders that the characters have an accent. Like most character traits, your reader will fill in the rest.

Monologues—This one’s tough, because a good monologue can be a major point in any story or film. By the same token, though, a bad one can bring your story to a screeching halt.

The first clue at if it’s a bad monologue is to look at some of the dialogue rules above. Is it necessary? Does it read naturally? Is it flowing? Does it fit the moment? Someone who launches into a formal monologue while being pounded by artillery shells and enemy sniper fire is probably going to sound a bit forced. If you’re breaking one of these guidelines and doing it with a 750 word monologue, your manuscript is going to end up in the ever-growing left hand pile.

Second clue if it’s bad is to count how many monologues there’ve already been. Yes, that may sound laughable, but you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen. One recent script I read for a screenwriting contest had half-page dialogue blocks on almost every page. If you’re on page forty-five and this is your fifth full-page monologue… odds are something needs to be reworked.

One last tip. A lot of people suggest reading your dialogue out loud to find where it trips. That’s not bad, but if you really want to find out how it reads, ask someone else to read it out loud—preferably someone who hasn’t seen it before or heard you talk about it. If you’re reading it yourself, you know how it’s supposed to sound, where the breaks should be, and what gets the emphasis. Let a friend or family member who doesn’t know it read it out loud and see what they do with it.

And then get back to your writing.

What are you still online for? Get back to writing!