Tag Archives: film

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

 

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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

 

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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 beautiful 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?

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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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