Picking up the subtext - scripts SHOULD be tough to read



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  • Picking up the subtext - scripts SHOULD be tough to read

    Some may say that a good script, one that is well-written, should be a smooth read. And that seems to make sense. You don't want something disjointed with no satisfying pace.

    Well what about subtext - in the dialogue, the visuals, the motives and relationships of the actors, and in the narrative all together? I suppose everyone has different standards, but I like, and also work hard to write, scripts that reveal all of those through subtext as much as possible.

    You ever read a script that had so much subtext in the dialogue that it almost didn't make sense? You have to read it over a few times and imagine how human beings actually behave and how this exchange would play out in reality. Or maybe it's still awkward, but then you see the movie, and because of how it was directed and how the actors delivered the lines, their mannerisms, their behavior - it all made sense and you picked up the subtext with no problem and it worked great.

    Now you may respond and say, "No, I don't have that problem, I'm a smart guy/girl and I ALWAYS get the subtext." Or, "A well-written script subtly reveals the subtext - it just isn't obvious." I'm sure we all strive for that, but I don't think it always works that way. Also, in a way, if the script did work all on it's own, without the needed help of direction and actors - then why film it? If it works alone - sell it as something to read.

    I think scripts should be a tough read the first time around, to a degree, and depending on who reads it. And I think this is just one of the reasons as to why scripts are generally considered tough to read as is.

    And this is one of the things that makes acting and directing so tough - deciphering the subtext and making it work.

    Scripts are often called blueprints. When a construction worker looks at a blueprint to build a house, does he only need to look at it once and then know exactly what to do?

    This is one of the biggest reasons why I'm interested in directing and not only writing. I honestly feel like scripts are necessarily incomplete - and I therefore feel incomplete after writing them.

  • #2
    When my partner and I write scripts for shorts we are going to make ourselves, they are less reader-friendly than the spec scripts we write and submit to the industry. There's more shorthand and subtext, because we're the ones who will have to interpret it, and we know what we mean. If we're making it ourselves, as long as it will play well, we don't care if it reads well.

    We do extra work to make sure our spec scripts are comprehensible and funny on the page, because we know we have to get past the readers. They have to be able to see the movie playing in their heads and not be pulled out of the story because something isn't clear to them. We probably write some dialog that could be cut during production, because a glance would tell enough. We err on the side of extra explanation in our spec scripts because we want to make them read smoothly and seemlessly.


    • #3
      Subtext is not always necessary when writing. Depending on the type of script you're writing it may actually hinder the read and slow down the pace of the film. Subtext is like any other element in screenwriting. It can be overused. Restraint and good judgment and an objective eye with your own work are the best ways to judge how little or how much of it to use. If the script is too muddled down with heavy subtext as to be unintelligible than it will be just as muddled on the screen. A director can only do so much with a script. Bad on the page, bad on the screen.

      I honestly feel like scripts are necessarily incomplete - and I therefore feel incomplete after writing them.
      No great works of art are ever finished, they are just abandoned. The process of writing begins with the writer and ends with the editor. There are many artists who bring their own vision, skills, talents and experiences to a film and it's just these elements that occasionally bring something wonderful and unexpected to the project. There is no other creative process I know of that is as collaborative as film. It's what makes it so fascinating and involving.

      A good script should elicit the same response from the reader that it expects to get from it's audience. Remember, the reader is your first audience. If you want your audience to laugh you better make the reader laugh...out loud. If you want to scare your audience, you better make the reader's skin crawl. If you believe that scripts should be so overblown with subtext as to be difficult or "tough" to read and a reader should have to read it twice in order to "get it" than it won't get past the reader. I personally guarantee it. Your message should be succinct and clear. Your story should be concise. Good on the page, great on the screen.

      Also, in a way, if the script did work all on it's own, without the needed help of direction and actors - then why film it? If it works alone - sell it as something to read.
      The difference between a book and a script is like the difference between a CD and sheet music. Listening to a CD is a very personal experience. The music can move you and create emotional experiences that are unique to your experience with it. Sheet music on the other hand is written to be performed. Yes you can read it and hum the music and get an idea of what it might sound like. But there's nothing like hearing an orchestra actually play Mozart.

      If writing scripts which are heavy with subtext is your bag then more power to ya! I hope to see you on the big screen someday. But remember, a writer writes for only one person...the audience.



      • #4
        No. they shouldn't be. What they should be is well written, with a smooth, easy pace that reveals itself, and it's depth, upon subsequent readings. But it has to make sense the first time through.

        Subtext functions like a metaphor, it means one thing on the surface but it can mean other things when closely examined. But for a metaphor to be sucessful, it has to function as the orginal object.

        As an example; you want to use an old kitchen table as a symbol of the family's unity. You'll have to show them around that table- being a family. If you try to show that table as a symbol, metaphor, for the family but they never use it as a table the image will fail.

        Same thing with verbal subtext. If the dialogue doesn't work for the scene it's in, if it doesn't work as something someone in the audience might say at that exact time- then it will just come off as obtuse and cryptic.

        If the scene is taken out of context, the dialogue still has to make sense.


        • #5
          My quick thoughts:

          Scripts shouldn't be "tough to read."


          They should be so gripping, compelling, or entertaining that they totally pull you into and ensconce - bathing you in the fullness and richness of the story. The tone, flavor, and nuance should tickle your ears like soap bubbles filling the tub.

          There are stories, however, that should make you think, but in that good way. Not think as in, "What the hell does this mean," or "I have no idea what's going on," or any other type of confusion. But, *think* as in you're so engaged in the story that you're really trying to figure out in your mind where the story is going - not out of confusion, but out of excited curiosity.

          When it comes to subtext, that seems to almost be an overused cliched topic on screenwriting discussion boards (to me, anyway). People try to debate its intricacies and applications and when it should or shouldn't be used.

          "Writers" argue that that your script should be slathered with subtext and then go on to debate the finer points of forcing all of your dialogue to be subtexty.

          "People speak in subtext in real life," is usually a battlecry belted out by these internet Branch Davidians.

          Well, no they don't. People sometimes speak with subtext and sometimes speak with candor.

          Just because subtext is some nifty trick a person learned in a book or on some messageboard doesn't mean that it is the only tool. People often abuse it.

          Phillips head screwdrivers work on lots of screws. But sometimes you need a flat head. Hell, sometimes you're not even working with screws.

          Would you use a screwdriver on a lugnut?

          It seems that aspirant "writers" often do that with their scripts; use a screwdriver to try to change their story's tire.

          A story should flow naturally. The dialogue should be that perfect yet elusive mix of subtext and candor. Dialogue can be cryptic, sly, secretive, witty, dry...but never confusing.

          Your story can be ingenious, clever, masterful, chilling, thought-provoking...but never confusing.

          The story, dialogue and all, should wash over the reader like a cool brook of water from a mountain spring.

          Your story should be something the reader should implicitly enjoy, not something that explicitly annoys them. They should want to become lost in it, not want to lose it.

          So, while I see your point, I respectfully disagree. Maybe it's just in the way you worded it.

          I want people to want to read my scripts again because they enjoyed them so much, not because they were left scratching their heads.


          • #6
            Scripts should never be tough to read. And anyone who reads knows subtext doesn't have to make for a tough read.


            • #7

              Subtext in the hands of a seasoned writer always reads well. I know you pointed out a sarcastic subtextual comment in regards to the "always reads well" mightier than thou attitude but I caught what you were saying between the lines.


              • #8
                Whistlelock said:

                Subtext functions like a metaphor, it means one thing on the surface but it can mean other things when closely examined. But for a metaphor to be sucessful, it has to function as the orginal object.
                Nothing more to add. This says it all.


                • #9

                  Out of curiosity, can you give an example of a produced screenplay that you found to be a tough read, but still good due to the use of subtext? I only ask because I've been reading a lot of (produced) screenplays lately, and not one of them has been a tough read, or at least, not a tough read for this reason. Minority Report was confusing in places, and Mamet's dialogue is meant to be heard, not seen. So I'm just wondering what you would put in the category of "hard to read because of subtext but good."


                  • #10
                    As you said Mamet is an excellent example. Isn't all dialogue meant to be heard and not seen?

                    When I say tough to read I don't mean every single page. And I don't mean impossible - just that you may have to read certain parts more than once til you get it.


                    • #11
                      And I've read some West Wing scripts. I know many people have a low opinion of Aaron Sorkin and that's fine. But with some of his stuff, I find myself having to really pay attention, almost straining, as opposed to most other written dialogue from other writers.

                      For me, some of Sorkin's and Mamet's stuff isnt always a smooth read -but when I watch it being acted out - it all flows and I find it engaging and more believably human than most others.

                      But not all of Mamet's stuff. Some of it turns me off.

                      I'm thinking David Rabe might be someone else as well, but no specific examples spring to mind right now.


                      • #12
                        Subtext is an extra. A bonus. Something that you get the second time you read through it, but the script still needs to make sense the first time. If its all loaded with hard to decifer subtext, then no one will want to read it, and furthermore buy it.


                        • #13
                          When I think of subtext, I flash back to many conversations when I was a teenager.... how green I was. And I really thought I understood the conversations, but damn, I had no clue. Of course, now I'm amused by this.

                          With some subtext, you understand it right in that moment. And with others, later on, it just occurs to you.... like someone just turned on the light in your brain. Personally, I enjoy the subtext that you get on a second watch because it's like watching a whole different level of the movie. That said, the first watch was great. Then you go back to it with a different perspective.

                          But it just doesn't make sense that it should be a tough read or watch. That's faulty logic. If the reader doesn't know what's going on, or the subtext of what's going on never occurs to them because it's a challenge, or they have to do a full excavation of the movie in order to figure out what was subtext because it's 'tough' - then the writer has failed. Unless the writer finds pleasure in seeing how dumb audiences are when they completely missed said writer's subtext.


                          • #14
                            Trying to be clever

                            There is such a thing as being too clever by half.

                            A writer who tries hard to be clever is boring and a turn-off.

                            Let the actors carry the subtext in their presentation.

                            Tell the story.