In this, her ninth book on screenwriting, the industry’s matriarch — who essentially created the job of script consultant three decades ago — Dr. Seger has gone on to clarify one of the most elusive elements of screenwriting in her latest book: Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath.
“Subtext is the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions,” she explains. “The text is the tip of the iceberg but the subtext is everything underneath that bubbles up and informs the text.”
Dr. Seger starts with reality to anchor our understanding of subtext. “When you’re confused, you’re probably experiencing subtext — something is going on beneath the surface.”
“In real life, subtext wastes our time and muddies our relationships because we’re forced to spend so much time figuring out what’s really going on. We try to fathom what’s up and keep thinking: ‘Something’s wrong here but I don’t know what it is!’”
Dr. Seger advises writers not to confuse the Reader by leaving the subtext vague. Being very judicious in their selection of words, scenes and characters, writers can intentionally avoid any erroneous detours or potential misinterpretations caused by arbitrary scenes or dialogue.
While perhaps frustrating or obfuscating in real life, on a script’s page, effective subtext can bring an entire cast and crew into alignment and empower each of them to add layers of authenticity to the execution of their respective roles. A script that leaps powerfully off the page has that much better a chance of making it successfully onto a screen.
Writing Subtext encourages writers to use all the tools in their arsenal: everything from visual image systems, the choice of time and weather, to swerves or pauses in dialogue, to gestures, behaviors, and actions. Each and every arrow in the creative quiver can be infused with subtext to eradicate a screenplay of any over-used, superficial, cliché or dreaded “on the nose” elements. The pros and cons of writing character bios and backstories are discussed — why some writers swear by them and others dismiss them as irrelevant — and the dangers of how too much subtext can seep into expositional text.
At the end of every chapter are exercises for you to develop your own projects as well as revisit great examples from our rich film history. She suggests studying everything from Freud to dream interpretation to B-movies to look for new and unique ways of evoking emotion and feeling through symbols and images.
No screenwriter’s bookshelf is complete without at least one book by Dr. Linda Seger. That’s a given. I’d personally argue, it’s not complete without all of them. I always weigh the price of the book and the few hours it’ll take me to read it against the knowledge and expertise that the author brings to my reading table. Thirty years of expertise, teaching in 30 countries on six continents, a dozen books published and consulting on a couple thousand screenplays which have resulted in 40 produced films and 35 television episodes … yeah, I’d say that’s worth 17 bucks and a couple hours of my time to read the latest is she’s got to say.
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