Category Archives: movies

So You Wrote a Big Budget Sci-fi/Fantasy Script. Now what?

Recently, I put the finishing touches on the second draft of a big budget fantasy feature screenplay. I wrote it both for fun and as a portfolio piece, knowing full well that a script like this would never get made. Even though it probably wasn’t the best use of my time, I still put more time, passion and meticulous care into this manuscript than I care to admit right now. (Hint: It was a lot.)

Curious for input from other Hollywood industry pros, I sent the script out for feedback. If you’ve ever written an original big budget spec script, then you probably have gone through what I experienced next. While the feedback was positive, these pros all told me the same thing: No one will ever want to buy this, no matter how good it is.

So, you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and no one in Hollywood wants to bite. You’re probably asking yourself: What do I do now?

Now that you have a big budget spec script on your hands, what do you do with it?

The short answer: Don’t toss it. Your script still has value.

The longer answer is, well, a bit longer. Let me explain.

Having a completed, polished screenplay under your belt will always be a feather in your cap whether you sell it or not. What you do with it next, however, is the big question.

First, let’s be clear and up front about expectations:

  • A big budget script is very hard to sell in Hollywood.
  • A big budget sci-fi/fantasy/superhero script not based on an existing IP (intellectual property, such as Lord of the Rings or Marvel) is even harder to sell.
  • A big budget script based on an IP you do not own or have rights to will not sell in Hollywood (because it’s IP/trademark infringement).
  • Your big budget script probably isn’t going to be made into a movie.

In short, your big budget genre movie is next to impossible to sell (let alone get made) in Hollywood. That may sound harsh, but understanding the reality you are up against is crucial to knowing where you shouldn’t be focusing your efforts. Instead, we’re going to take practical steps to make the most of that awesome script of yours.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at your path forward. You essentially have two choices:

  1. Use your script as a writing sample.
  2. Adapt your script into a novel.

1. As a Writing Sample

If you are like me, writing sci-fi/fantasy is your jam, meaning when you write in that milieu, you are at your best (replace with superhero, action, etc.). Pick out a few choice selections from your script and use these to promote your ability, professionalism and creativity when auditioning for new writing projects.

You probably won’t jump to working on big budget projects directly from a spec script, especially if you are still new to the business, but it can be the linchpin that opens a doorway that eventually leads to that prized assignment.

Besides, while you are using your incredibly cool script as a staple portfolio piece, you can simultaneously be pursuing option #2:

2. Adapting Your Screenplay into a Novel

Converting your spec screenplay into a novel is perhaps your best route to getting that story onto the big screen (yes, you read that correctly). In fact, you can even do this and #1 simultaneously.

If your book is successful, then the powers that be will be much more keen to turn your book into a movie. Now you’re back where you started—except this time you have the backing of an existing IP.

However, I should err on the side of caution in saying that there are no guarantees here. All of this hinges on the fact that you can:

  1. Complete a novel,
  2. Get it published, and
  3. Reach a wide enough audience with a strong enough impact that your novel is considered successful enough for adaptation to the screen.

It doesn’t have to be a novel, either. Video games and comic books are viable options as well. In fact, your superhero script may be more suited to one of these genres than a novel.

Regardless of the route you take, embarking on this journey is certainly a far better strategy than sitting on a perfectly good, superbly awesome story that the world would otherwise never get to experience.

Better to share than to hoard in secret. (Yes, you can quote that).

So now that you’ve written a big budget sci-fi, fantasy, superhero or action script on spec and nobody in Hollywood wants to bite, maybe all your story needs is a new medium to make it big.

Time to get writing.

So You’re Going to a Pitchfest

So you’ve decided to go to a pitch festival (aka “pitchfest“) for writers.

That’s amazing.

But before you go, there are a few things you should know.

In my most recent Hollywood pitchfest experience, I was surprised at how many participants were woefully underprepared. Considering the amount of resources and time it must have taken for many of these people to travel to Los Angeles for the pitchfest, this hit me hard.

In fact, I found myself doling out advice to many participants who seemed to have little or no idea how to prepare for their pitches, let alone a two-day marathon—a pitchfest, if you will.

So I’m going to pass on some of that advice to you to help you make the most of your own pitchfest experience. While this advice is specific to going to a pitchfest, it also applies (mostly) to virtual pitchfests or anyone pitching a story to an industry professional—movies, TV, books, scripted, unscripted, pitchfest or pitch meeting.

1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Know Your Story

Start by learning your story inside and out. It may have been awhile since you dusted off that script or pitch. Over time it’s easy to forget important details—especially when you’re put on the spot.

One-sheets

Be sure to write, polish and print out a one-sheet to give to every person or team you pitch to. A one-sheet is essentially your pitch, synopsis and contact info put into writing on—you guess it—one sheet of paper. You can read more about the one-sheet here.

Business Cards

Have these at the ready for networking purposes. You never know who you are going to meet or where that relationship will take you in the future, even among the fellow pitchfest attendees.

NOTE: Business card finishes are not all created equal. For instance, while glossy business cards may look spectacular, matte business cards are far easier to write on with any type of pen, and thus, they are more useful.

2. Do Your Homework

You don’t want to waste time pitching to someone who isn’t interested in your type of project. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time. Instead, do your research first:

  • Find and pitch to companies who are interested in your type of project, format or genre. Don’t just guess, check out their websites and IMDB.
  • Research how similar, successful projects in the same genre/format been pitched in the past. IMDB and Box Office Mojo are your friends here.
  • Try crafting a “hook” into your pitch that dials into that company’s mission statement or core focus. Remember looking up the company website? That’s where you should look.
  • Don’t stop refining your pitch! Use nonverbal responses you receive from each detail of your pitch to improve or alter your next pitch. (I once derailed an entire pitch because I mistakenly used the word “shenanigans” instead of “petty squabbling” in my opening statement. Needless to say, I never used that word again after that.)

3. Dress Respectably

This should go without saying, but it still needs to be said. Groom yourself, dress professionally, smell nice and grab a breath mint or two. This doesn’t mean you have to dress up like you are going to fancy dinner (don’t do that, btw), but simply that you want to show the professionals you are pitching to that you respect their time, you respect the process, and that you put conscious time and effort into what you do.

In short: you don’t want to be “that guy” or “that lady” that executives dread.

4. Don’t Be Robotic

I know it can be very challenging pitching to strangers. You’re taking this beautiful, highly personal story that’s trapped in your head and trying to explain it in a way that doesn’t sound completely ridiculous or insane to someone who could potentially change your life forever.

No biggie.

When you pitch as a writer, you aren't just trying to sell your story, you are trying to sell these executives on the idea of 'you.'

However, if you want the best possible chance at selling your story at a pitchfest, it’s critical to be enthusiastic, friendly, emotive and passionate when conducting your pitch—all while pretending you are acting natural. That’s why practicing your pitch is so essential to great delivery. Even if you’ve pitched your story a thousand times, it’s important to keep your energy up like it’s the very first time. You want to show your pitch recipients that you love your story.

That means DO NOT:

  • Use monotone voice like you are reciting verbatim from memory (even if you are);
  • Avoid eye contact, greetings or human interaction (even if you want to);
  • Read from a notecard or prompt sheet (just don’t).

Which leads us to our next point…

5. Sell Yourself

When you pitch, you aren’t just selling your story, you’re selling yourself. On more than one occasion, it is the personality and enthusiasm of the pitcher that sells the company on their project—or, at the very least, enabled that storyteller to move onto the next stage of their relationship with that company.

I know this can be especially challenging for many writers who are introverts and socially shy or awkward. Well, this is where you learn to grow.

Need help? Try taking a public speaking class, practicing your pitch to your friends, or even signing up to take a workshop on pitching. Also be sure to check out Good in a Room on pitching a feature film, TV show, or unscripted reality show.

6. Lead the Conversation

Remember that when you go in to deliver your pitch, it’s you in the spotlight, not the individuals you’re pitching to. This is an important distinction because many writers open their pitch like this: “I have ten scripts. What do you want to hear?” If the executives knew, they wouldn’t be at the pitchfest! Besides, it’s a weak way to open that not only reduces their confidence in your storytelling abilities, but also hurts your ability to “sell yourself” (see #5, above).

Instead, jump right into your pitch with confidence and gusto. Afterward, be sure to be proactive in providing a one-sheet and asking for contact information, such as a business card.

7. Concept First, Details After

Don’t make the mistake of diving into the details of your story without getting a crystal clear concept out of the way first. This is essential. When giving your pitch to a complete stranger (who knows nothing about your story yet), start by giving them the big picture. Once they’ve locked that down, then move into more detail from there. If you can’t give the audience a grasp on what the overall idea of the story is, the details may come across as an incomprehensible mess.

Besides, having a concept that absolutely kills may be enough to sell your story, meaning weaknesses in the execution may be more easily overlooked.

8. Have a Backup, or Two, or Three

There’s nothing worse than having your pitch shot down right at the get-go. This happened to me and my pitching partner on our very first pitch on the very first day of the fest. A quick “I’m not interested in that” made our blood run cold. Fortunately, we had prepared a handful of backup pitches as well. Not only did these backups salvage the pitch session, but we received a read request for both of the alternatives we pitched.

The moral of the story? Come prepared with a backup…or two…or three.

9. Network, Make Friends

Remember those business cards we had you make all the way back in #1? Well, here’s where you use them.

Networking with other writers and storytellers at a pitch festival is a way to open doors for future relationships and collaboration.

Networking with fellow writers and storytellers should be one of your primary objectives when you go to a pitchfest. For many writers I spoke to at the Fade In Hollywood Pitch Festival, many hadn’t even thought of this. However, several writers like me and my pitch partner had quite a bit of downtime, so we devoted that time to networking and building future relationships.

Besides the obvious benefit of building your professional network, there are a few other not-so-obvious benefits to making nice with your fellow participants. For one, sharing valuable pitching techniques, nuances and experiences can help you and your new contacts pitch more effectively.

Also, one of your new friends may be scheduled to be pitch to the same company as you at an earlier time, meaning they can offer valuable insight into how to target your pitch. For my own experience, this influenced how my pitching partner and I customized our pitch to the company, resulting in a read request for our script.

10. Get in the Right Mental Space

This is a frequently overlooked aspect of preparing for a pitchfest. Putting yourself in the right frame of mind to accomplish your goals, absorb feedback, and process events that are happening faster than you can say “pitch festival” is important to getting what you want out of the whole process.

Don’t Pin Your Future on the Pitchfest

Maybe you’ll sell your story, maybe you won’t. Just as nailing your pitch won’t necessarily lead to sale, bombing a pitch (and it happens) doesn’t mean your dreams are forever shattered. Either way, your life isn’t over. You will have good pitches and you will have bad pitches. The important thing is to do your homework, deliver your best, and if you don’t sell anything this year, try again next year.

Set Reasonable Goals

Go into the pitchfest with a purpose. That is, don’t aim to sell your story because you probably won’t. Instead, aim to get read requests. Getting one of these busy professionals to read your story is the biggest hurdle. And even if they don’t like your story, they may like the cut of your jib. In that way, it’s important to think of these pitches as not necessarily a way to sell your project right then and there, but rather as opening a door to a relationship that could potentially result in a sale later on down the road.

It’s Not Always You

Not all pitchfest attendees will be interested in your project. This isn’t necessarily your fault. Some people are “checked out” before you ever get face-to-face them. Often, they may not be in the market for what you are selling or are simply a filling in as a warm body. It sucks, but it happens. And it’s not always because of you.


Hopefully, these tips on maximizing your experience at a pitchfest will help you feel more confident and prepared for the upcoming extravaganza. Pitching is hard. Talking to strangers is hard. Pitching to strangers is even harder. But with practice, preparation, and a little bit of luck, maybe your pitch will be the one that sells.

If you want to read about the pitchfest experience from the other side of the table, check out Manny Fonseca’s article here.

Break a leg, pitchfester!

Have any additional pointers you’d like to share? We’d love to hear ‘em.

Capote, a film by Bennett Miller

Austere, brilliantly-acted, and full of contrast

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman once again demonstrates his acting mastery in this biopic about Truman Capote during the writing of his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood—the book that defined Capote’s career. In fact, Hoffman brings the character so much to life that one can’t help but feel that he is more “Capote” than Capote himself.

But existential debate aside, Hoffman fills the role naturally and without artificial affect as he portrays a character unlike any other in his repertoire. It paid off: Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance.movie poster for philip seymour hoffman's masterfully acted movie Capote

The idea of “In Cold Blood” permeates Capote as it progresses in a reserved but naturalistic and non-distractedly spare manner with patient, steady pacing. A heavily restrained earth-tone color palette paints a stark picture supported by a similarly spare soundtrack that is at times cool and unmelodious, at other times contrasting with a tender piano score to complement the idea of human emotion and sympathy.

But the austere tone of the film is also counter-balanced with an interesting theme of humanizing the inhuman—a task the source material handles exceedingly well. The book itself (In Cold Blood) explores the human aspects of even the most cold-blooded acts of cruelty.

The plot focuses on the relationship between the ambitious but friendly and persuasive Capote and the accused murderer Perry Smith. As the story develops, the film draws clever and subtle parallels between their emerging friendship on the surface and the contrasting desires nested within: Capote’s search for book material and Perry’s heartless desires for self-gratification.

Perry’s full sociopathy finally surfaces toward the end once the veils are cast aside to reveal the harsh but ultimately human truth that lies beneath. The sequence portraying Perry’s confession illustrates this best, climatically depicting the heartbreaking humanity inherent in his brutality.

What could they have done better?

While the film demonstrates excellence in many regards, the story does have a few areas that could have been improved.

1. Where’s the Other Killer?

The book In Cold Blood depicts Perry Smith and Dick Hickock as a pair of cold-blooded killers—Dick coming across as particularly unfeeling and brutal compared to the warmth exhibited by Perry. While Dick is included in the film, his character lacks meaningful presence. Sure, the heart of Capote centers around the Truman’s relationship with Perry, but that doesn’t excuse his absence, particularly because Dick’s character provides an incredible opportunity to draw further contrast between the humanness of Perry and Dick’s inhumanness.

2. Act Three Pacing

The slow and steady pacing works for the film…except in the final act. Capote builds up the potential to push toward a riveting climax, but instead falls into the typical biopic pitfall of slowing down to end on a low note. Capote’s third act slows down an already andante step even more, practically to the point of boredom.

Still, all-in-all, a film worth seeing, particularly if you are fan of either Truman Capote or Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

Want feedback or development help with your script or film? Contact us! We’re just a click away:

8 Movies That Prove Perspective is Everything

If film has taught us anything, it’s that different people perceive things differently. That’s how we get conflict. And we wouldn’t have conflict if we all experienced and interpreted events in exactly the same way.

Whereas history presents itself as being an objective treatment of the human story, story in the narrative sense relies more on the subjective experiences of our narrators, protagonists, and characters. The way they view motivations and events isn’t necessarily the way other characters in those same stories would view them.

The storytelling term that addresses this subjectivity is called an ‘unreliable narrator.’ How an unreliable narrator frames story events for the audience isn’t necessarily the way they actually happened.

On that note, we’re going to explore eight movies that show how perspective and point of view shape our interpretation of story.

(WARNING! These films aren’t for everyone. But if you’re in the mood to flex those hungry cinephile muscles, then you should absolutely watch every movie on this list. Hint: The best ones are at the end.)

1. Dale and Tucker vs Evil

IMDB | 2010 | R | 1h 29min | Action, Comedy, Horror

Let’s start simple and easy. Dale and Tucker vs Evil is a fun, light-hearted romp that takes a concept like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and turns it on its head to show things from the perspective of the “bad guys.” What we learn, however, is that these chainsaw-wielding hillbillies are anything but “bad.” It’s merely the viewpoint of the victims that frame Dale and Tucker as psychotic murderers. Worth noting is how the movie goes the extra mile to make use love and sympathize with the unlucky protagonists, played by the talented Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine.

Continue reading 8 Movies That Prove Perspective is Everything

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Rewriting Process

Ask any writer what the hardest part about writing is and most them will you: rewriting. For many storytellers, rewriting is not only highly challenging, but not a whole lot of fun, either.

What makes rewriting so hard?

Take your pick:

  • Writing and rewriting/editing are two different skills
  • Rewriting is more technical and analytical, less creative
  • It feels confining compared to the freeness of pure creation
  • Self-editing is difficult because of your inherent bias
  • When your head is so far down in the weeds, it’s difficult to keep your eye on the big picture

Rewriting may be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to put a brick wall in front of your story’s future development. With that in mind, let’s look at five easy ways to make the rewriting process a little easier.

1. Make a Laundry List of Rewrites

How do you tackle rewriting a manuscript that needs so much work, it’s simply overwhelming? Make a list! A laundry list is a to-do list that itemizes each thing that needs addressed in your rewrite, separated into groupings of big, medium, small, and minor. You go through the list one item at a time, devoting all your focus to solving that one problem, starting with the biggest and most important issues, and then dialing in on smaller line items from there. Addressing big rewrites ends up solving many smaller items along the way. By the time you’ve finished your list, your next draft is suddenly much, much better. Not only does making a laundry list help you get organized, it allows you to focus on only one issue at a time without getting distracted or overwhelmed by everything else that needs to be done.

For more on this technique, read the full article here.

2. Save Every Draft Separately

You never know when you are going to need a snippet from an old draft until you suddenly need it—and can’t find it! Rather than saving over your current files, save every new significant draft as a separate file (or folder). Not only does this allow you to go back to old drafts to recover useful tidbits, but if anything happens to your current draft (e.g. computer crash) or you end up rewriting yourself into a corner, you always have a backup. Version tracking and management can be crucial, especially when working on variable story lines (like video games) or when dealing with complex deliverables (such as multilateral marketing collateral).

3. Keep Your Outline Current

As you proceed through multiple drafts of your manuscript, it’s a good idea to keep an updated outline of your story at all times. That way, as you get wrapped up in the smaller details of your story, you still have an easy reminder of the big picture—that is, the outline helps you see the forest while you are working among the trees. You can make notes about other points in the story via the outline without completely derailing your current writing task as well. The outline also prevents confusion as the story undergoes multiple drafts wherein story elements may change. Your outline essentially overrides any discrepancies between the different drafts, which becomes especially important if you decide to set the project aside for a few months and come back to it later on (see 5. Let It Rest below.)

4. Get Outside Input

Even though the process of soliciting feedback on a creative work can be painful, it’s also one of your most useful tools in rewriting. You get so involved in the world of your story that it becomes difficult to gain outside perspective—that is, how a prospective audience will interpret the story you’ve invested your heart and soul into.

A few tips for soliciting feedback:

  • You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) accept every criticism. Many will be way off base. Look for trends or repeat comments among various parties. These will be the areas to focus on.
  • Only a fraction of the people who offer to read the work will actually read it. Of those, only some will provide feedback. That’s totally normal.
  • It’s okay to preface handing out your work by saying the story is in early stages and you are just looking for general feedback. Let them know it’s not a final draft. Most people will understand, and many will be excited to offer their input.
  • Don’t get too discouraged if the majority of people who read your story aren’t super into it—that’s okay. It’s normal. You may get better results if you ask for feedback to a specific target audience similar to that of your story (“anyone out there like horror?”).
  • Try to seek out readers who are more likely to offer constructive feedback rather than accolades. While compliments feel good and can be quite inspiring, they won’t as helpful as honest feedback.

5. Let It Rest

You’re stuck. You’re frustrated. It doesn’t seem like anything is working. So you shelve the story to give it some space and “let it rest.” You aren’t giving up. You’re simply setting it aside for a while with the intent to come back to it at a later time. Does this sound like you? Or something you would like to do? Guess what? “Let it rest” is a tried-and-true rewriting method for countless writers over the centuries. Not only is it an acceptable rewriting process, it’s a highly recommended one that can help you get “unstuck.”

Here are few reasons why coming back to a story after it’s been off your mind for days, weeks, months or even years, works so well:

  • A fresh look gives you a new perspective on the story, especially the big picture.
  • You get to experience the story more like your audience will.
  • You have a more mature, experienced skill set.
  • It’s easier to spot problems you missed before.
  • Coming back to an old story can inspire you to finish it.

After all, there’s nothing so reinvigorating to your storytelling senses than picking up an incomplete manuscript that’s begging to be finished.

We’ve explored five easy ways to improve your rewriting process. These methods are by no means an exhaustive list, but they are easy and everyone can use them.

What techniques do you use to make your rewriting process easier? We’d love to hear them.

Still Feeling Stuck?

If you still need help with finishing your story—no matter the medium—don’t hesitate to reach out to our experts here at StorySci.com. We offer story consultation and rewriting services, among many others.

The Place Beyond the Pines, a film by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond the Pines is a Hollywood rarity. Theme is the driving force here, not plot, saturating every layer of the film. Cycles and cyclical imagery abound. At its core, Beyond the Pines is about how boys become their fathers, even if they consciously set out on different paths.

Essentially three short films in one (connected through a thematic father/son through-line), the movie proves itself through uncanny execution of what could easily have been a forgettable snapshot in time. The extraordinary directorial vision makes use of perspective and point of view to create a three-dimensional world, elevating a simple genre story into a filmic experience.beyond the pines 50

Visually gritty and visceral, the film is aglow with light and textures of color. Breathtaking cinematography makes use of the rich, the dramatic, and the crisp to capture the feel of vintage film stock. A slow, relaxed introduction to the story paints each scene as a thoughtful, ponderous photograph. But this pacing is double-edged, making the film feel a bit too slow and ponderous at times.

One thing is certain: The storytellers truly know character. Populating the cast with coarse, realistic individuals that feel genuine and real, each and every character comes across flawed and human. Excellent acting rounds out the characters with additional depth. The multiple protagonists can be jarring—as each new handoff brings instant change in tone—but ultimately serving to contrast or parallel the protagonists’ families.

What could they have done better?

1. Too Many Films

More than anything, this should have been two films. The first, an atmospheric short. The second, an interesting failed experiment. Although connected thematically and as a way to span generations of fathers and sons, a short opening sequence could solve that issue without making the film feel overlong. Granted, this would impact the Cianfrance’s audacious vision. But we are addressing story, not vision.

2. Act Two Pacing / Direction

Being thematically-driven, the act two development section feels as though it lacks forward direction at times. Creating a more clearly motivated end-point for characters in this section would have helped keep the pace from lagging. Cutting a few scenes to be shorter with less navel-gazing is another tried-and-true solution to a lull in pacing.

3. Extend Act One Meticulousness

The first act feels meticulously groomed, refined, and executed, making the other acts pale by comparison. During the script development phase, the writing team could have extended the tone and attention to story from act one to the rest of the film. Once in the editing room, however, the solution lies—believe it or not—in editing.

While Beyond the Pines may not be perfect, it is anything but another lobotomized Hollywood clone, but rather, a thoughtful observation of human behavior. If you’re a cinephile who loves mood and character and you’re in search of an experience that’s more complex and dense than your everyday summer flick, be sure to check it out.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

Want feedback or development help with your script or film? Contact us! We’re just a click away:

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!

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