Monday, March 19, 2007

This is not about subtext

In the original version of my short, Game Night, we had two couples sitting around playing Taboo and chatting about stuff. When we were told we needed to rewrite it to raise the stakes, Partner and I thought about our themes first. The couples are playing Taboo, so that gives us a great symbol to work with that shouldn't go to waste. What can we change about this story that reflects a taboo? So we decided there is something else going on that the couples aren't talking about, and we don't find out what it is until almost the end of the story.

That one change meant we had to alter very little of the story and a small amount of dialogue but were still able to change the conflicts dramatically. It's the same story, but now it's very much not the same story because of the silent elephant in the room. Best Friend pointed out that the new script gives the actors more to do. They have to play this game on one level, and on the other hand there's a relationship between the coupes that they have to deal with, and on top of that each person has their own personal issues to wrestle. All in this twelve minute piece. So even if Contact doesn't decide he likes the story enough to produce it, I sure as hell do. It used to be funny. Now it's funny and meaningful.

One of the things I learned at acting class was how an actor can change one little thing - a facial expression, a tone of voice - and change the whole character. One Actor read a monologue that was a really sad story. He started out sad and he stayed sad and he ended sad. This was an excellent Actor, but the choices he made with the character were too obvious. The teacher suggested he start off the story happy, like he was remembering something enjoyable until he got to the sad part. The Actor struggled because all he could think about was the sad part of the story and he couldn't see how anyone could find this happy. But most people act happy when they're not to cover their pain, and that's what Actor was missing.

But most people don't say what they're thinking. Most of us hide our true emotions and pretend everything's fine when it's not. How often in a given day do you really say what you think? The clues come in your facial expression, your action or the tone of your voice.

I was out once with a group of friends. I was looking at a Hot Friend of mine as he was away from our table doing something clever when Best Friend leaned over and said, "Oh my god, you are so smitten," and everybody at the table nodded as if they've known all along.

"I am not!" I said. But the look on my face read "smitten".

Did I go up to Hot Friend and say, "Dude I am so smitten with you"?

No. Nobody does that. I hardened my face and protested that no, I just think he's funny and leave me alone, assholes.

Because nobody really says how they feel. There is always an elephant in the room.


  1. This is my problem with subtext: I always say what I think. I'm that guy to whom people are always saying: "So, how do you really feel?"

    Which is infuriating. Don't ever do that.

  2. Your post on subtext reminded me of Hemingway's story: Hills Like White Elephants.

    Nice blog. :)

  3. Oh yeah, I forgot about that story. My fiction writing professor used to read it to the class at the beginning of every semester.


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