Monday, September 25, 2006

The Lost Art of Subtext

I may have mentioned once or twice my renewed obsession with that famous Days of Our Lives supercouple, Steve and Kayla, thanks to the actors' return to daytime in those roles. I've viewed a lot of the old clips now, and one striking difference I've noted between soaps in the 1980s and soaps today is the glaring lack of subtlety in storytelling. All of the dialogue is on the nose. There are no interesting pauses to let the actors, you know--act. Things that should be implied are said aloud.


I'm seeing that trend, at times, on prime time television as well. Does it have to do with the shortened attentions span of the viewing audience? I have to wonder, as I think some of the more challenging televisions shows, such as LOST or HOUSE, still do the subtext very, very well---and these are critically acclaimed shows that pull in decent to good ratings. They also have rabidly loyal fan bases. I don't think that's a coincidence.

I've been thinking about this a lot and trying to apply it to my own writing. Dialogue should be as revelatory for what it doesn't say as for what it says. Am I taking advantage of the nuances, the subtext beneath my characters' lines? Do I use dialogue too directly when I should be using it to surround the idea instead of hammer it into the ground? Do my characters have a lot going on beneath the surface of what they're saying to each other--0r not saying to each other?

Sometimes I think when contest judges and editors talk about "stilted dialogue"--they're really talking about the lack of subtext. Characters saying too much, too directly, and not letting the context and the characters pull their part of the load.

So what about it? Is subtext overrated? Am I a dinosaur wishing for the return of the good old days that were never that good and will never come around again?


Hawa Bond said...

Did somebody say "House?" If that's an example of good subtext, then sign me up as a fan on the subtext train. What an excellent show!

Do I lose all my cool points when I also admit that I love reality TV (e.g. Project Runway), I'm prone to staring at the most awful train wrecks (e.g. The Flava of Love - ugh), and I'm still stuck Grey's Anatomy?

Paula said...

Hi, Hawa.

Love me some House! I haven't watched PR, although Jenn keeps me updated on it regularly. (Sorry to hear that her cute little gay boyfriend Kayne got booted off). I don't watch Grey's Anatomy, either, but I have a writer friend who's obsessed with it.

Personally, I can't wait until this Wednesday and the season premiere of LOST! Mmm, Sawyer in captivity!