All posts by James Gilmore

James Gilmore is a writer, poet, filmmaker and story analyst.

10 Tips for Writing That TV Pilot

So you want to write your own television show. Great!

Before you commit to writing the pilot episode for your brand-new TV show, why don’t you take a look at these 10 helpful tips for writing that TV pilot that will make your writing life a little bit easier.

1. Prepare to Invest

Many people jump right into writing episode one—the pilot for a brand-new show—thinking, “Hey, this will be WAY easier than writing that new novel of mine, or taking all that time to write a feature-length screenplay.”

Reality check: It isn’t.

In fact, developing a good TV pilot can be the hardest and most involved of all three, even though the end result may only look like 40-60 pages from the outside. This is because when you write a pilot, you aren’t just writing the script for episode one; you are creating a whole new concept with complex characters, multiple story threads, with as many setups and ideas for future episodes as possible. When someone reads your pilot script, they will only be reading the tip of the iceberg, not the vast amount of backend work that went into producing those measly few pages.

2. The Concept Must KILL

Before you really dig into your show, take enough time to make the concept air-tight. What do we mean by “concept”? The concept is a fleshed-out version of the core idea for your TV show—the idea that makes your show different from every other show out there.

If your concept is clear, it should be obvious what makes your show different from others and also make someone want to watch the show itself. For example, “ER for women” was a successful concept that became Grey’s Anatomy, based on the success of an already existing show but with a new angle. Lost created appeal through the concept alone: A group of strangers become lost after crash landing on a mysterious island inhabited by strange forces, but while surviving on the island, each character finds individual purpose after having been “lost” in their personal lives back home.

That said, make the concept grab the audience’s attention. For example, don’t just write an alien invasion show. It’s been done many times and hasn’t been successful. But if you want to write an alien invasion show where humankind is the invader—now that’s an interesting twist people can get behind.

3. Legs: The Show Must Go On

For American television, “legs” are very, very important. What do we mean by legs? “Legs” refers to the potential episodes the show can produce in the long-term based on the concept. A more open-ended concept typically offers more “legs.” A closed concept with one specific, attainable goal offers less of a future (if any).

With that in mind, part of what your pilot must do is setup the long-term future of the show—the “legs.” My Name Is Earl did this by using a wide-open concept with no foreseeable limitations (his list of wrongs to “right” can be as long as the sun, for all we know). A show about thieves planning a heist is problematic in that the goal is far too easy to reach. Once they’ve reached their goal, where does the show go from there? Breaking Bad solved this by always creating a bigger goal for the protagonist to achieve once (or even before) the old has been solved.

4. Know Your Audience

This should go without saying, but it comes up far too often to leave out. If the show doesn’t have a clear or specific audience in mind, then it will not be successful. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Stranger Things nail their audience targeting. Now imagine if Pretty Little Liars was written to target 30-something males…it would have bombed. The mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica tried to rope in a wider female audience by focusing on romance in later seasons, and the result turned the show into a soap opera in space—disappointing original and the new audiences alike. The moral of the story? Yup, you guessed it: Know your audience.

5. Characters Are Everything, Protagonist More So

While characters are the heart and soul of any story, in television, they are the most important element. The cast needs to do more than survive the pilot. They will be responsible for carrying the show long-term. Above and beyond that, the central protagonist needs to be the most interesting of all, fleshed out with enough potential new material to keep audiences coming back episode after episode, season after season. If your characters don’t have enough setups in the pilot, they won’t be interesting enough to carry a second episode. Remember, anything that applies to the characters counts doubly so for the protagonist.

6. Include Act Breaks

In the modern age of commercial-free Internet streaming, writers sometimes think their pilot scripts should also be act-free (act breaks are where the commercials play). Incorrect. Always include act breaks.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Act breaks represent major structural highs and lows in the plot, so leaving them out flattens these points and harms the overall flow of the story.
  2. It makes the writer look like they don’t know what they are doing, even if they do.
  3. It creates ambiguity about the script’s end goal—is it a short film? Is part of the script missing? Is it actually half of a feature screenplay?

When you aren’t there to explain it to the people reading the script, any extra uncertainties can stop your pilot’s progress dead in the water.

7. Don’t Forget the B-Story

Sometimes writers leave out or drop the B-Story in their pilot because due to lack of room. Big mistake. Don’t ever do this. Your pilot needs to have a B-Story—industry pros will be looking for it and they will notice if it’s missing. Believe it or not, so will your audience. A script with just an A-Story tends to feel hollow and like it’s missing “heart.” Remember, the B-Story is a chance to humanize your characters, keep main cast members involved in the show even when they aren’t directly involved in the A-Plot, and give the audience a breather from the main storyline. The B-Story is also a chance to loosen up and have some extra fun with the show.

8. Blueprint the Show

Your pilot script not only needs to set up the world of the show, character problems and imply future storylines, it must “blueprint” the entire show by illustrating how a normal episode will run its course. This can be tricky because you are essentially trying to pack two different episodes into one. But it’s necessary to communicate the look, feel, and overall sense of what it means to be “the show.” In recent years, well-funded projects have tackled this difficult task by creating two-part pilots (two episodes viewed back-to-back), the first part taking its time to set up the show and the second part showing what a regular episode will look like. While an ideal solution, in a spec script that’s a dicey option since it requires double the effort, double the budget to make, and thus doubles the risk of failure from an investment standpoint. So, for spec script, try splitting up the pilot into first half for setup and second half for blueprinting. Alternatively, integrate them together so we don’t notice. It’s much harder and comes with its own risks, but can payoff in the form of a solid pilot script that stands on its own.

9. Create a Show Bible

You don’t absolutely need a show bible to write a successful pilot, but it helps—a lot. Think of it as a multi-use tool where you can include all your notes and ideas about future episodes, character and story arcs, character bios, hidden and upcoming tidbits, etc. Putting all of this into a formalized document that can be shared along with the pilot shows industry execs that you are serious about your pilot, you’ve spent time developing the show beyond episode one, and that you’re thinking long-term. Having a show bible in your back pocket also allows you to cram less into your pilot (it’s written down elsewhere) and enrich your characters on screen because you’ve spent time exploring them in the bible. Don’t be fooled, creating a show bible can be an overwhelming task. Start by breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces, like short season/episode synopses, character roles, flaws, dreams, secrets, etc.

10. Bible First, Script Last (Outline in Between)

Writers and writing teachers often view their “writing” or tangible end product in terms of written pages. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Try developing a show bible first and getting that really solid, create an outline of the pilot, break it down into a beat sheet, and then write the actual pilot script last. That way you’ve had more time to figure out all the little details and plotlines beforehand, so you end up with stronger pages and fewer rewrites. Once words are down on the script page, it becomes hard to “kill your darlings” and make the necessary changes. But with a show bible, outline, and beat sheet in hand, your first true “draft” resulting in pages will look far closer to a finely-polished script than you may get by going through old fashioned draft iterations.

Now that you’ve had a chance to check off the last 10 boxes, are you still ready to accept the challenge of writing that TV pilot? Hey, it’s the golden age of television right now, so maybe you should.

Working on a TV pilot? Let us know. We’d love to hear about your progress!

Need help developing or rewriting your TV pilot? Contact us today for a consultation.

Subtext, Part 2: What Does Subtext Do?

In Part 1 of our article series on subtext we began a thorough introduction to the subject. Here in Part 2 we are going to dive into greater depth on how subtext functions in storytelling. As for the specific types of subtext (and there are many), we will get to that in a future article.

So…

What does subtext actually do?

The short answer: Subtext enhances storytelling by tapping into the subconscious to make the story more memorable and more impactful. It applies to every genre and every medium.

The really short answer: Subtext helps tell a better story.

But how, exactly?

Storysci.com's illustration of how subtext creates depth in storytelling.
Subtext adds depth and dimension to your story.

Subtext Sets Tone, Atmosphere & Mood

At its most basic level, subtext communicates the overall feel of the story. This can be a subtle undertone, a collection of background mood elements, or the setting of the story itself.

For example’s sake, let’s take the following sentence, devoid of subtext:

Hawker walked through the street that night.

Now let’s add a bit of subtext in the form of mood:

Hawker pushed through the murky night, parting the dense fog like a shadow in a snow drift.

Quite a difference, isn’t there?

Take it a step further by throwing in a larger atmosphere element that recurs throughout the story. Maybe everyone Hawker passes on the streets walks briskly, arms tucked, closed off from communication, not stopping when they bump into him.

Without having to directly tell the audience anything, the added subtext communicates Hawker’s isolation and introspective defensiveness, putting him into a world where every individual must fend for oneself.

For a few real-world examples, check out:

TV: Twin Peaks
LIT: The Red Badge of Courage
FILM: Body Heat

Subtext Illustrates Story, Reduces Exposition

You’ve probably heard the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” The idea here is to aim for illustrating story through the playing-out of conflict, desires, obstacles and goal-seeking rather than telling the audience what happens through direct exposition. Here’s where subtext comes in handy. Subtext is all about showing because it doesn’t allow you to explain things outright (“on-the-nose,” or literally as they are).

Subtext illustrates story by communicating between the lines. It’s as simple as that. Much of the time, this kind of subtext naturally arises during the storytelling process through the choices our characters make. The selflessness or selfishness of the decision in that situation expresses something about their character, and so long as the narrative doesn’t come right out and say “this is what that choice means for this character,” then the subtext happens all on its own.

This is where the superhero genre really excels: The protagonist is repeatedly put into situations where (s)he must choose between a selfish, gratifying act or a selfless, self-harming act. Subtext comes into play when the hero makes that key decision. We (the audience) know that if the hero makes a selfish choice that (s)he will be personally rewarded, but because of ignoble cowardice and/or weakness. Likewise, we implicitly know that the hero’s selfless act will come with great struggle and personal pain, and will win our admiration for doing the right thing. All of that from a choice—and we don’t even have to spell it out for the audience. They’ll get it. Audiences are smart.

Want to see this in action? Try:

TV: The Office
FILM: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2
LIT: Of Mice and Men

Subtext Creates Emotional Impact

As we’ve mentioned previously, subtext communicates below the textual level, nesting itself in the pregnant quiet space beneath the surface message to create immediacy, greater meaning and emotion than would otherwise be possible. If you’ve ever seen a sitcom, then yes, you’ve seen this aspect of subtext in action.

Imagine a TV show conversation between Rock and Stone. Rock has been in love with Stone for 10 years. We’ve been following Rock and Stone’s comical near-love connection mishaps for 5 seasons now. They’ve never actually gotten together but both characters have repeatedly demonstrated their secret love and willingness to sacrifice all for each other since episode one. During the season 5 finale, Rock accidentally reveals those feelings for Stone in public while accepting an award. Embarrassed, Rock flees to hide beneath a tree. Having heard the flub, Stone finds Rock and confesses the same feelings. That fuzzy, tingly, heart-swelling moment that accompanies their first kiss? That’s right. From subtext.

But how?

The text of the moment isn’t all that interesting by itself: Stone finds Rock beneath the tree, confesses feelings and they kiss. How many times have we heard a story like that? What lends this particular situation the gravity and emotional impact is the fact that in that scene between Rock and Stone, we carry the subconscious build-up of all past 5 seasons of unrequited love. The power of everything that led to this huge payoff is the subtext. As the audience, we don’t have to be reminded of the past 5 seasons because we’ve already experienced it, so by not calling attention to that directly, we’ve avoided blocky exposition to let the subtext ride out the moment.

Additional great examples:

TV: Friends
LIT: Age of Innocence
FILM: Lord of the Rings trilogy

Subtext Adds Depth by Conveying a Greater Message

Here’s where subtext gets storytellers really excited. When your story is attempting to convey a theme, moral, or greater commentary, subtext is the most effective means to do so. Beginning storytellers tend to go straight to soapboxing—beating the idea over the audience’s head through direct exposition. This preachy/didactic approach rarely sticks with the audience for long, and can even turn them off from future connection with the story if it rubs them the wrong away. The more proper—and challenging—way to communicate higher messaging is through skillful implementation of subtext.

Returning to the idea of showing, not telling, the subtext of greater messaging emerges not in one particular moment or scene, but over the course of the longer story as the various arguments associated with that message are played out through the plot. In a high-level sense, we can call this subtextual messaging theme, but it also extends to motif, religious/political messaging, morals, commentary or criticism, warnings, thought experiments and what-if scenarios as well. The means by which subtext illustrates this greater messaging is by showing how that main idea (and its subsidiary ideas) play out through goal-seeking, obstacles and conflict, rather than coming out and telling the audience exactly what it’s doing. After all, would you rather have someone explain a painting to you or see it for yourself?

Satirical TV shows like Family Guy or South Park make use of subtext to lampoon political and religious ideas on a regular basis by putting characters into the situation they wish to comment on, and then using humor to express the desired opinion or viewpoint of the show as the situation plays out during the episode. George Orwell’s famous novels Animal Farm and 1984 both take a more serious approach, using literal situations to illustrate the dangers of communism—without ever directly saying “communism is bad.” In this way, the plot (“text”) tells a compelling story while the subplot simultaneously acts as an invisible force, forming the proverbial iceberg beneath the water and granting the plot its impact and staying-power.

Wan more real-world examples? Check out:

TV: Family Guy
LIT: 1984
FILM: Harold & Maude

Whew! That is a lot to digest—and there’s more to come! Stay tuned for Part 3: How to Use Subtext, where we will move away from theory and dig into the more practical applications of subtext in storytelling.

In the meantime, share your thoughts and favorite subtext-laden stories with us. We’d love to hear from you!

Still lost? Receive additional guidance from StorySci by contacting us or filling out the form below:

10 Artistic Films to Watch Before You Die

A quick heads up: We’re going to hit the international smorgasbord of taste in this article.

Are you a cinephile who loves artistic film? The road less traveled? Films that dare to defy convention? Then you’ve come to the right place.

I’m not going to lie, each of these films holds a special place in my heart and have stayed with me in the decades since I first experienced them. Now I want to pass those memorable experiences onto others.

No, not every one of these movies hits a Perfect 10 on the quality scale, and no, I’m not asking you to absolutely love every one of these films. However, I will ask you to keep an open mind and ignore the IMDB ratings. This discussion is about expanding your horizons beyond the narrow cookie-cutter Hollywood norms.

Let’s start with something soft and light:

1. Heartbeats

heartbeats

Originally: Les amours imaginaires
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Year: 2010
Runtime: 1h 41m
Genre: Drama, Romance
Country: France
Watch: YouTube, DVD

Perhaps the most mainstream film of this bunch, Heartbeats carries itself with subtlety, tenderness, and an almost uncomfortably close intimacy. This beautifully film takes a carefully crafted approach to navigating the uncertainties of love, friendship, gender and sexual fluidity by exploring the complex relationships within an ambiguous love triangle. A small cast in character-centric film, the content itself is somewhat progressive, but breathtaking in its heartfelt simplicity.

Still with me? Good. Let’s challenge your senses a little more.

2. Princess Mononoke

mononoke

Originally: Mononoke-hime
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, Neil Gaiman (Adapted By)
Year: 1997
Runtime: 2h 14m
Genre: Animation, Action/Adventure, Fantasy
Country: Japan
Watch: DVD, Blu-ray

This anime feature film expresses a deep, theme-laden story through a dichotomous portrayal of beauty and brutality. The plot literalizes the metaphor of industrialization polluting the purity of nature, playing out the struggle on-screen with visual moments that will make your heart drop in your chest. But don’t let me spoil the plot. Experience it yourself. After all, there’s a reason this Studio Ghibli masterpiece has remained popular over the years.

3. The Tenant

tenant

Originally: La locataire
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski, Roland Topor (novel)
Year: 1976
Runtime: 2h 6m
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD

You’ve heard of Rosemary’s Baby, but maybe you haven’t heard of Roman Polanski’s other other, arguably better, psychological horror film, The Tenant? Probably not. But here’s why you should watch it: The storytelling pays incredible attention to detail and the fluid, gradual madness that befalls the protagonist. You won’t even realize how deep into the story you are until the circular plot throws you for a loop with a powerful finale—or is it the beginning?

4. Run Lola Run

lola

Originally: Lola rennt
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Year: 1998
Runtime: 1h 20m
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Country: Germany
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

A well-known international film popular among American cinephiles, Run Lola Run straddles the line between feature and short film while exploring the surreality of multiple endings. In the story, the protagonist finds herself in a jam, forcing her to make quick decisions, each leading to a cascading series of unforeseen consequences. Lola doesn’t hold your hand along the way, either, creating plenty of material for thought-provoking analysis.

Still there? Great. Let’s move into more obscure territory…

5. Kanal

kanal

AKA: The Sewer
Director:
 Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski
Year: 1957
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, War
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD

A film by one of the Polish masters, Andrzej Wajda, the predecessor to other Polish greats like Krzysztof Kieslowski and controversial directing great Roman Polanski, Kanal offers a layered retelling of Dante’s Inferno. Set in the sewers of Warsaw in WWII, the surface plot acts as a proxy to express Poland’s struggle to regain its lost identity after the USSR takeover. Bravery, insanity, and tragedy all have their place in this incredible piece of Polish Cold War-era film history.

6. Baraka

baraka

AKA: Baraka – A World Beyond Words
Director:
 Ron Fricke
Writers: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson, Genevieve Nicholas, Constantine Nicholas, Bob Green
Year: 1992
Runtime: 1h 36m
Genre: Documentary
Country: United States
Watch: Amazon Video, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray

No, this awe-inspiring documentary has nothing to do with former U.S. President Barack Obama. Rather, it’s a visual record of a day in the history of the world from sunrise to sunset, without any dialogue or narration. In many ways, Baraka is a more of a motion portrait of humankind than a true documentary, but let’s leave that distinction to the film critics. If you love documentaries, or even just love still photography, this often forgotten film should move to the top of your list.

7. The Double Life of Veronique

veronique

Originally: La double vie de Véronique
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Writers: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Year: 1991
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Music
Country: France/Poland
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

Kieslowski explores the idea of an individual meeting their doppelganger in a surreal, dramatically emotional film layered with spirituality and ambiguous meaning. This is the film to watch and analyze if you want to get your fingers dirty with film criticism. And if you like Double Life, be sure to check out Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue.

Great work! You’ve made it this far. Time to bring out the big guns:

8. Man of Marble

marble

Originally: Czlowiek z marmuru
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: Aleksander Scibor-Rylski
Year: 1977
Runtime: 2h 40m
Genre: Drama
Country: Poland
Watch: DVD, Blu-Ray

A personal favorite of mine, this Polish film (Andrzej Wajda again) requires some historical background knowledge to fully grasp. Essentially, a young film student tracks down an old communist-era hero of the working class, uncovering a long trail of untruths in the process. While watching Man of Marble, keep a keen eye open for how Wajda and Scibo-Rylski dodge the communist censors while simultaneously criticizing that very same institution of censorship with every second of motion picture. And sure, the dramatic leg poses and disco music can certainly be a sensory challenge, but hey, it was over 30 years ago. Those superficial issues aside, the film’s storytelling technique is deceptively deep and intricate, and every act and every line of dialogue comes loaded with subtext and double meaning. For depth in storytelling, it doesn’t get much closer to technical perfection than Wajda’s Man of Marble.

9. A Hole in My Heart

holeinheart

Originally: Ett hål i mitt hjärta
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Writer: Lukas Moodysson
Year: 2004
Runtime: 1h 38m
Genre: Drama
Country: Sweden
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD

Now we’ve arrived to the most obscure, avant-garde point of the article. This film experienced an extremely limited release (1 screen for 2 weeks only), paltry box office returns ($3,306 gross), and no mainstream reception whatsoever (just look at the IMDB rating and Metascore). A Hole in My Heart takes on the unrestrained lust of the pornography industry and peels away the layers to reveal the rot and disgust that lies beneath through visual metaphor and reality TV conventions such as the confession box. Sure, Moodysson’s film can be aesthetically challenging, if not outright bizarre, but simultaneously thoughtful, satirical, and—of all things—incredibly intimate and heartfelt.

Finally, let’s end on a (slightly) more positive note:

10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

cherbourg

Originally: Les parapluies de Cherbourg
Director: Jacques Demy
Writer: Jacques Demy
Year: 1964
Runtime: 1h 31m
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Country: France
Watch: Amazon Video, DVD, Blu-ray

This award-winning musical hangs somewhere between the realms of obscurity and cherished history, sweeping Cannes in 1964 but losing out at the 1966 Academy Awards to more mainstream films like The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago (yes, THAT Doctor Zhivago). Strange in its vivid colorfulness but drab, unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a romance that doesn’t work out, Umbrellas is nothing short of a filmic experience every cinephile should have. And while you’re at it, maybe you can settle the debate over whether it’s a true musical or really a modern asymmetrical opera.

 

Did you like this list? If so, give me a shout out on Twitter or Facebook and I will write another!

Or pick my brain yourself at Storysci.com.

Subtext, Part 1: What is Subtext?

Subtext is one of the strongest, most powerful narrative tools a storyteller has in their arsenal.

That’s awesome! But what exactly is subtext?

The short answer: Information that is communicated without coming out and directly saying it.

The very short answer: What ISN’T said.

What does that mean?

Great question. Big, complicated answer.

To answer that question thoroughly, we will start by grazing the surface of subtext with Part 1 in our article series before proceeding to a deep dive into the subject. Part 2 will explore what subtext is, how it functions, and the many forms in which it can be used in significantly greater depth.

Back to the question at hand:

What is Subtext?

Subtext is many things, and nailing down a helpful description in a single phrase always falls short. The trickiness lies in the fact that subtext isn’t directly written, stated or spoken. It is the ever present invisible context inhabiting the shell we call text—that is, the underlying story beneath the outer story crust.

Like any informational source, story consists of two layers: Text and Subtext. In a conversation between two people, text represents the words each participant says to the other while subtext includes everything they aren’t saying. That doesn’t mean subtext includes everything they could possibly or potentially say in that situation, but rather the meaning behind the strategy and delivery of the text.

storylayers_sqx2.jpg
Where Subtext falls in the layers of storytelling.

 

If Person A asks Person B, “Did you drive today?” The text of Person A’s question is obvious—exactly what (s)he came out and said. However, the subtext—what Person A didn’t say—is far richer and meaningful: Do I have to give you a ride today? The tone of Person A’s voice, the emotional backing and the context in which the question was asked add subtext as well. So while the text may be a simple question, the subtext alters the meaning depending on whether it was asked with a groan or with the intent of helping out a friend in need.

What Does Subtext Do?

The short answer: Subtext creates meaning.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext represents the emotional core of your story. Not restricted by genre, medium or storyteller, subtext is the hidden power that gives the text its emotional and thematic punch. Depth and nuance are almost entirely contained in this layer of story.

A story cannot succeed without effective subtext because the text itself cannot adequately communicate meaning in a way that feels fulfilling or satisfying. The audience will notice when subtext is missing—whether they are consciously aware of it or not—because the story will feel hollow, motivations poorly formed, and characters lacking in dimension.

If Subtext is so Important, Why Do I Need Surface Text?

The short answer: You need both. Always.

The not-as-short answer:

Surface text acts as a simple vehicle to put the subtext into a context that makes it tangible, specific, and easy to understand. By itself, subtext comes across as abstract and vague. Text without subtext feels superficial and forgettable. Therefore, every story needs both subtext and text because the story will feel incomplete with only one or the other.

To review:

  • Surface text tells us what happens, not what it means.
  • Subtext tells us what it means, not what happens.
  • Text + Subtext tells us what happens and what those events mean.

How Do I Create Subtext?

The short answer: By talking around the obvious.

The not-as-short answer:

Subtext arises through restraint from revealing the mystery and explaining all, creating implication of the greater struggle that lies beneath the surface—conflict, the heart and soul of story. Basically, by not using direct exposition (text). Don’t say what you mean; say all the things that approach the subject indirectly without giving away the whole story. Think about the exposition as an aerial view of the whole forest but the audience only gets to see the trees up close at ground level. Subtext provides clues to solving the mystery without directly saying, “The butler did it.” The audience will absorb the evidence and come to that conclusion themselves, but in a way that creates a more cathartic experience because they were actively involved in the emotional journey and not just a passive participant.

A few ways to approach subtext:

  • If a character wants something in a scene, don’t let them say so. Have them employ different tactics to approach the subject indirectly without identifying the want directly.
  • If a character feels an emotion, don’t let them say exactly who they feel. Have them express or explore other secondary emotions or outward effects without dialing in on the root cause.
  • If a setting or environment evokes a certain ambiance, don’t say so. Describe it in terms of sensations, feelings, emotions and similarities without pigeonholing it with over-simplified description like “creepy” or “romantic.”

What’s Next?

We’ve only just started talking about subtext here in Part 1 of our article series. Stay tuned for Part 2: What Does Subtext Do?

Feeling lost? Story Science is here to help! Contact us right away and we will help you find your way.

Create Subtext Through Implied History

writing_exercise

Today’s writing exercise focuses on a particular type of subtext.

A quick review –

Text operates on two levels: surface text and underlying subtext. While text represents the surface action, subtext consists of everything that’s really going on beneath that surface action—aka what’s not being said.

WHY

Identifying or explaining subtext is one thing, but actually embedding it into storytelling is quite another. In this exercise we will tackle the challenge of using subtext to create implied history in a character relationship.

PURPOSE

To help walk you through aging a character relationship by building successive levels of implied history through the use of subtext. With every successive layer of implied character history you add, note how the resulting subtext affects the way characters interact with each other.

CHALLENGE

Two characters walk into a kitchen to find dirty dishes in the sink.

Write a short conflict-laden scene between the two characters regarding the dirty dishes and using the following situational context:

  • The two characters are strangers who have just met for the very first time.

Now write a new version of the scene with the same two characters in the same situation, only with new added history:

  • Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.
  • Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.
  • In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.
  • In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

Did you come up with something interesting? Let us know!

 

Need some help?

Having trouble with this exercise? Here’s a little help to get those creative juices flowing —

WRITING PROMPT: Create Subtext Through Implied History

Roommates who hit it off for the first week, but have come to their first disagreement.

Not wanting to come off as mean or judgmental, Judy eases her way into asking Maggie about the dishes by approaching the subject indirectly. Then, after expressing her grievance in a polite, mild form, she closes her statement with a casual “…if that’s cool with you.”

How does Maggie respond? Does she respond with the same tone and tactic? Is she irritated? Maybe she feels like she doesn’t have time for beating around the bush, so chooses to escalate the situation, setting a bad precedent for encounters to come?

Now roommates for six months and the dirty dishes are a regular point of conflict.

Sticking with Judy as our protagonist, she once again comes home to find a sink full of smelly, dirty dishes, even though (once again) it’s Maggie’s turn to clean them. Maybe Judy’s a bit of a neat freak while Maggie tends to let house hygiene slide somewhat more. While the dirty dish arguments remained somewhat polite for the first few months, they have since become increasingly forceful with raised voices, personal insults and wild gesticulations. Tempers flares. Doors slam. You get the picture.

But today is different. Her previous tactic having failed, what does she do or say differently to get her point across this time?

In a relationship and living together for two years and again the dirty dishes lead to a confrontation.

Somehow, somewhere, Judy and Maggie were able to look past their dish differences and form a long-term relationship of sorts (best friends, lovers, entrepreneurial partners—take your pick). It’s been a brutal 10-hour workday for Judy, so when she comes home to find that familiar odorous specter waiting for her in the kitchen, she’s finally had enough. Judy storms over to Maggie’s room, pounds on her door with all her might. Maggie finally emerges, ready for a fight. They scream, accuse, maybe even graduate to throwing dirty dishes at each other. Either way, the fight ends with Judy leaving for the local dive bar, vowing to move as soon as she’s saved up enough for a deposit on a new apartment.

In a relationship and living together for forty years when another dish incident occurs.

It’s been four decades since Judy and Maggie began their journey of communal living and over the years Judy has learned to pick her battles, knowing that for some things Maggie may never change. One of those things? Dirty dishes. Judy knows Maggie won’t clean the dirty dishes, even if it’s her turn. So when Judy comes home, sees the sink piled high with grimy porcelain, she already counts the confrontation as a loss. Instead of confronting Maggie about the neglect, she chooses to just suck it up and let the dishes rot. If worst comes to worst, Judy will do the dishes herself. Either way, Judy feels Maggie’s neglect of the dirty dishes is a fact she cannot change, and at this point, not worth the energy. So this time says nothing at all.

 

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MST3K: The Return, a Minimalist Review

While fans of the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) are either loving or hating The Return  (read: Netflix “reboot”), its reception elsewhere is much more lukewarm. Starring Jonah Ray,  Hampton Yount as the voice of Crow T. Robot,  and Baron Vaughn as the voice of Servo (also known for his role on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie),  The Return goes back to the old Joel Hodgson formula, complete with the much-loved invention exchange.mst3k_thereturn

Slipping into the roles of this trailblazing trio is Jonah Ray,  whose serviceable performance as an average but not-so-average guy lacks the humble charm of his predecessors, and yet manages to come across as rather likable after an episode or two. Patton Oswalt repeatedly demonstrates his performance to be the most well-acted role in the whole show and a welcome inheritor of TV’s Frank role as the evil bumbling sidekick.

But it’s the robots that stand out most. Like Jonah, as characters they are pretty bland with undifferentiated behaviors, jokes, and even voices (it’s easy to confuse the three voices in the darkened theater). Their personalities are essentially interchangeable, making them feel underdeveloped and gimmicky, like caricatures of the originals. Even Gypsy (previously voiced by Jim Mallon), whose role as the somewhat mentally slower robot sibling, is not exempt. Altering her voice from “funny” to “young and sexy” strips her character of one her most defining feature.

The show launches with a rocky start. Its series opener aims below cheesy for the disappointing sub-adequate mark. Jokes range from fair to good, rarely great. By the second episode the team finds their riffing groove and the comedy becomes relatively smooth sailing from there on out.

That said, Jonah and the bots carry a heavy torch in following up the comical adeptness of MST3K’s original cast. While it may be hard to live up to the legendary Joel, Mike, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Frank Conniff (let alone the powerhouse trio of Mike-Kevin-Bill, now of RiffTrax fame), even they did not start out as comedy all-stars. But with a little time and practice, maybe they will one day surpass the originals.

For many, the magic is in the freshness of seeing new MST3K episodes for the very first time. Or perhaps it is watching as one of the greatest cinematic experiences in living memory passes onto a new generation while also stoking the dormant coals of that beautiful old nostalgia.

What’s the conclusion for this Minimalist Review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return?

Meh.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

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The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a Minimalist Review

Brenda Hampton’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a TV show, in that it has characters with their own personalities, desires, coming into conflict with each other within a plot of sorts. However, it is hardly more than that.

TheSecretLifeoftheAmericanTeenagerWhile the overall storyline plays out like an immature daytime soap, characters and conversations give the impression that the show is being written by a sheltered 14 year old virgin guessing at how adults and teenagers must act in the “real” world, with limited understanding about relationships and the facts of life. The end result is a weird demonization of sex that confuses hormones, love and lust in ways that are inaccurate, misleading and downright harmful. If teenagers are using this show as a guide to navigating their teen years, they will be in for a considerable shock.

Episode plots are absurdly repetitive, so skipping 1 or 5 episodes results in landing on the exact same issues you left on. Most of the show’s screen time is spent pounding outdated morals and values over the heads of their teenage characters.

Despite being set in Los Angeles–one of the most multi-cultural cities in the US–the cast is almost entirely white, with one representative couple for each other ethnicity. But even those groups are played as “white” for all intents and purposes.

Character arcs rarely surprise as they take on predictable lines. The principals tend to fall back into the same issues repeatedly. The main female lead proves herself the most heinous of the bunch, acting selfish, petty, demanding and spoiled to the point where she ends up as a sort of villain to her supporting cast. If you want to a watch a show where nearly every character ranges from unlikable to downright loathsome, you’ve come to the right place.

While the characters themselves are rather well-formed, their dialogue seems to be written by someone who has never heard of subtext…or a thesaurus. The collective ensemble ends up wielding a combined vocabulary equivalent to that of a single 10 year old.

To sum up…

The Secret Life is one of the worst television shows to survive more than one season on the air, let alone a mind-boggling five. It is a show that exists for reasons beyond reason. If any script from this show came across my desk for analysis, it would have been an easy PASS/PASS.

Rating: 1.5/5

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