Subtext can be found beneath words, gestures, behaviours, actions, and images…..
I like being connected and associated with Series and Soaps; for this is where I earned my stripes as it were – my television story telling credentials – but as a script consultant with my own burgeoning business, www.scriptadvice.co.uk I often find that writers believe this discipline of television writing has a limited and restricted skill base.
I can get quite stroppy, dear reader; if I read/hear/over hear/ someone denigrating the story telling quality of our well known Soaps and Series; currently churning out consistently high quality storylines on a stupidly fast turn around on ITV, BBC and C4 and watched by millions, across the widest ranging demographic of any drama genre.
You see, it is here, in the fast moving, story eating, mercilessly time consuming, world of Series and Soap story creation that all areas of story telling are consistently and unrelentlessly called into play.
Text. Subtext. Message. The Royal Three. Each needs to be at the table, for an episode of drama, for a script of anything, to work.
Text needs to propose to Subtext, and Message dances at the wedding.
Plot is the first concern – what happens. But it is not Text that in the final analysis is, in my view, the most important element of this story triumverate.
It is the Subtext.
For it is here that we can divert attention from that which is obvious. We can set an angled story path towards that which is not said. We can focus the audience collective mind away from the obvious, the stated, the expected.
Naturally, we need plot. We need action. We need Stuff To Happen.
But. Without a reason (ideally several) for this action, without a driving force underlying this course of behaviour, without a layered and well conceived series of motivations, desires and
dreams, the characters in this story world are mere cyphers for the plot. They are two dimensional – the impact they will make on screen will be as dynamic and forceful as a card board cut out falling face down. No one will care. The impact will not be felt.
It’s a suble art; the weaving of subtext through a narrative.
Writers need to be aware; like the elephant in the room, of that which is purposefully left un-mentioned; that which acts as an undercurrent, a tug of motive; the idea that plants itself in the mind of the viewer as we watch the scene unfold. What is this scene about? There’s the plot to tell us that, but now this particular beat has been duly reached, now what is the scene really about?
In Last Tango In Halifax Series 2; Sally Wainwright gives us a master class in how to handle subtext in a two hander scene involving Gillian (Alan’s daughter) and Gary, her ‘date’ for the evening. Alan and Celia (the elderly lovers who caused so much unrest and upheaval in their respective families in series 1 by falling in love and marrying) remark how unusual it is for Alan’s hard-edged, capable daughter Gillian to have a romantic liason of any description. Alan makes a point of saying how Gary’s invitation to dinner came out of the blue for Gillian. How it appears odd that any man would do this, (the suggestion being that it is a cynical world in which we live and Gillian is more cynical than most). Caroline, Celia’s driven, educated daughter with lesbian ambitions, also seems to find the prospect of Gillian’s upcoming date amusing.
And it is the thoughts and attitudes of these three members of Gillian’s family that carry us forward into the actual scene where Gillian meets Gary at the restaurant. We believe their incredulity is all there is to play here. We look forward to Gillian being finally romanced. It is about time. Which is what Sally Wainwright wants us to think. Until.
Two things happen very quickly.
One. Gary is late. Not a good sign. Subtly the seeds of doubt are planted.
Two. When he does appear; Gary’s demeanour is more platonic than romantic. He scoots over his lateness and Gillian is a good sport about it. He is clearly perturbed by something. And we feel the disappointment bubbling under the surface, as the camera favours Gillian.
Gary is determined to tell a labyrinthine story about his family. He talks about himself. Not the done thing on a date. This much, we all know. So we begin to realise this is not a standard scene about two singletons pairing up.
The tug of the subtext is clearly felt. What is about to happen? What is Gary all about?
So Gary, inevitably, (because now we know this scene is about so much more than was originally supposed) drops the bombshell. He believes Gillian’s dad Alan is his real father.
So this is why we are having dinner? Gillian’s face is a mask. Yes. Sorry. Did I give the wrong impression? Yes. You did rather.
Now, Alan’s almost childlike delight that his daugther is to be wined and dined; and Caroline’s wry smile as she tells her girlfriend that Gillian is on a date, and Celia’s raised eyebrow, all now takes on a deeper, shade and it is also now, that in retrospect we can see how the writer began weaving the subtext which currently courses through this dinner scene, 3 or 4 scenes previously.
The colour of dramatic subtext taints not just the essential scene in which it must be most deeply felt – it also adds a tonal wash to preceding scenes.
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