Author Q&A: Linda Seger, “Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath”

Linda Seger, author of Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, is a script consultant and screenwriting coach, who has worked on more than 2000 scripts and penned nine books on screenwriting. (She has also written six books on spirituality–two to be released this year). Linda has worked with power players in the film industry from over six continents, including Ray Bradbury, Peter Jackson, and William Kelley.

Linda Seger talks about how the principles of subtext can be applied to different types of writing, tips for learning and writing subtext, and more in this Author Q&A.

What inspired you to write Writing Subtext?

The book was an assignment offered to me by Michael Wiese Publishers: “We’d like to have a book on subtext. We thought you’d be a good choice to write it!” I immediately said yes. And as soon as I started working on it, I was inspired!

What was your favorite part of writing it? The greatest challenge?

The best part was the challenge. There were no screenwriting books on subtext, except a page here and there within a book. There was one academic book on subtext, but otherwise, little had been written about the subject, so I had to figure it out. I did this by thinking about what films I knew had subtext and then studying screenplay and the film.

I chose Ordinary People, A Shadow of Doubt, and the “Abnormal Psychology” episode of Cheers. I then starting analyzing what they were doing, and looking for patterns among them. “Oh, there’s subtext here in the words and gestures! Oh, here I see actions with subtext in all of these.” So I began to see it’s not just about words, but actions, gestures, genre, etc. That helped me organize the book. And it helped me to see that this was not so mysterious, but could be analyzed.

After that, I started brainstorming every subtextual experience I had, and started talking to friends and relatives about where they see subtext. I broke those experiences down into love relationships, cultural relationships, word choice, etc. I then began to have fun, because there’s humor in subtext and irony. I tried to let my sense of humor loose to make it an entertaining book, as well as a book with specific analyses and examples.

It was a challenge because it was the first book on the subject, and therefore I had to figure it out. But I enjoy figuring things out.

Writing SubtextWhat’s new in the second edition?

I expanded the book so it would be relevant to other fiction writers, such as novelists and short story writers. I did this by mainly choosing examples from books made into films, so I could quote from the book and the screenplay.

I rearranged the chapters, so I now have a love chapter, a chapter on analogy (I came up with that idea after seeing The Big Short), and a chapter on backstory. I added case studies at the end of some chapters. I added examples and expanded examples from some other movies, cut a few other examples from the first edition, and preserved my three classics: Ordinary People, Shadow of Doubt, and the Cheers episode.

Why is subtext so important?

Subtext deepens a story or script. It nuances. It keeps characters from being on-the-nose. And adds intrigue and mystery.

In real life, if you don’t get the subtext, you can fall in love with a bad person, lose all your money because you didn’t understand what your financial advisor was implying, start wars for the wrong reasons, and maybe blow up the world over a slight you didn’t realize wasn’t a slight at all. Reading beneath the lines is an important skill to have–for everybody, and for the writer.

How can the principles of subtext be applied to other types of writing?

It can be applied to all fiction writers, including even non-fiction writers who might recount personal stories as examples. In literature, there is more opportunity to imply and even spell out the subtext because the fiction writer can go into more detail and has description to help clarify subtext. A character says something, and another character interprets the real meaning, or shows skepticism or incredulity over what is said, which makes the reader begin to see underlying meanings. Even description can imply subtext. In the description to the screenplay of Psycho, we’re told the wallpaper has a splatter of roses – and the word “splatter” implies the splatter of blood. Word choice is so important in subtext–to suggest, imply, and resonate.

Is there a trick to writing subtext?

Yes. You must work on it and not be satisfied with the first or second draft. You usually don’t find it right away. Many writers write the scene as text first, and then tweak and hone to try to get the words to resonate with subtext. That could take 10-20 rewrites, continually looking for the right word that has subterranean meanings.

Can you share a few tips for people who have trouble writing subtext?

First, train yourself to recognize subtext in real life. If you get a queasy feeling when someone says something, there’s probably subtext. Keep asking, “What is really being communicated?” Sometimes the person who said it doesn’t know there’s subtext. So, as an exercise, keep working at figuring out what the person might really be saying. Why did that person cozy up to you, or stay across the room? Why didn’t he call? Why is that person bragging? Is he really so powerful, or just bluster?

Learn not to take everything at face value. Then, work on underlying meanings of your scenes. If there aren’t any, think about what might possibly be going on beneath the surface.

Advice for screenwriters?

Write, read, learn, practice, experience, then write some more.

Advice for writing non-fiction books?

Write, read, learn, practice, experience, then write some more.

I have a saying I apply to myself: “If a sentence hasn’t been rewritten at least 10 times, it’s probably not good enough.”

Additional advice for writers?

I have discovered over my 35 years in the business that the difference between an amateur and a professional is not talent, but the ability to work hard and keep learning. The professionals rewrite more. They don’t expect a first draft to be good. And, through that work and experience, they develop an ability to know when they hit it right, and when it works, and when, “That’s it!”–and it’s good. Then, of course, there is more feedback to come.

Don’t be afraid of feedback, but don’t follow it blindly. Choose evaluators carefully, and work on what doesn’t yet work. Be determined to find the moment of beauty and truth in writing, when your writing sings.

What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

I would have taken all opportunities to get experience in the film world, even that which didn’t pay. I was given the opportunity early on to be a production assistant on a one-hour television show–but without pay. The director was going to do me a favor. I needed money and didn’t take the job, but I wish I would have. I could have figured something out about the money–maybe.

I would have learned that you can’t use it if you don’t know it, experiences count, and that it’s never about the money. I would have been more open to learning from others and not thinking I was showing my ignorance by asking a question. I would have put more focus on the process, not the results. I would have sought out colleagues faster, and not seen them as competition. I would have been more willing to trust my instincts and intuition, while always training my instincts and intuition to do better.

But there were so many things I did right–among them, getting good preparation and a good education, and gaining a solid knowledge base for my work, and working with a brilliant career consultant (Judith Claire from Santa Monica). I have terrific colleagues–others who are script consultants, seminar leaders, and authors–and we have learned to be helpful and supportive of each other. I’ve learned that everything in life has some form of collaboration to it. There is no competition. All of us are originals, and we keep finding that balance between expressing that originality and learning how to connect and communicate with others.

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