Spring at Philadelphia Young Playwrights always means one thing: our students are asking fantastic questions about storytelling as they complete their first drafts and begin the revision process. Popular questions I’m hearing this year are, “How do I tell a story without revealing everything in the beginning?” as well as “How do I create complex characters?” and finally, “How do I write dialogue that isn’t too ‘on the nose’ and that sounds natural?” All questions that writers of all ages and abilities wrestle with on a regular basis, including myself.
There’s no single path to a good story, but a great answer to all three questions that I want to talk about more today is subtext. One of the great American directors of our time, Anne Bogart, once gave this advice about portraying characters on stage, “A great actor, like a great striptease artist, withholds more than she or he shows.” I submit to you that the same can be said for writers. When we have faith that a reader or audience member’s imagination can bring an incredible amount to the storytelling table, we absolve ourselves of the pressure to spell everything out. Leveraging subtext is one way to let those who experience our work read between the lines, and it’s a great tool to add tension and suspense, too.
So what’s the magic subtext formula? Today, it’s album and song titles. Taken at face value they can be provocative, confessional, mysterious, or all of the above. We often sing about the things that we keep to ourselves on a regular day, which makes these titles a perfect path to subtext.
And that means it’s time to get to the activities! The first version of Song Title Subtext is for writers who want to do the activity to create a new scene or chapter; the second version is for writers who would rather apply this exploration to a work-in-progress. Whichever version you chose, have fun with the act of withholding!
SONG TITLE SUBTEXT, VERSION ONE: STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Genres: Prose, Playwriting
Writing Process: Plot, Conflict, Character Development
If you are a facilitator who is working with a class of writers, set up a gallery of 15 to 20 old records with evocative title songs to give writers a good amount of albums to choose from. HINT: many Goodwill stores have crates full of cheap albums. If you’re unable to find actual records, you can do an image search and print out the album covers that way. The photos below were in the top row of results in my old record covers and vintage album cover searches, so you know there are a ton of gems out there! If you are a writer who is working solo, hop right into the first step of this activity by visiting your local Goodwill or doing an image search until you find an album cover that resonates with you.
1. Choose wisely. Pick an album cover with a title that provokes your imagination. You can take the image on the album cover into account, but the title will be the focus of the rest of the activity.
2. Create Your Character. Your album title is now the subtext for a character you are about to create. Answer the following questions to create your character and the reasons behind this subtext:
- What character springs to mind as you consider this album title? List the character’s name, age, occupation, and any other background information that comes to mind.
- How does the album title relate to this character’s current circumstances?
- Why must this character withhold part or all of these current circumstances? Think about what this character stands to gain or lose if the full truth of this subtext comes to light.
3. Complicate Things. To explore how you can use your character’s subtext to add conflict and complicate their story, answer the following:
- Is there anything that the character must say/not say, do/not do, acquire/get rid of in order to withhold this information or solve their problem?
- Who stands in the way? Who must the character withhold this information from at all costs? Who has opposing goals or desires that would further complicate things?
- What locations will either complicate things or help the character? Do any other locations have particular significance to the character’s current circumstance?
- Are there any items, events, or actions that could stand in the way, force the character to reveal information, or help them improve their circumstances?
4. The Witholding Game. Pick an idea(s) from your complications list above. Note the setting, characters and conflict of the scene before you begin writing. Remember, as you write the goal is to withhold the character’s subtext for as long as possible! What tactics can the character use to make sure their inner truth stays that way?
5. Want a Twist? Halfway through your writing, play the title song of the album. Listen its tone, rhythm, and lyrics as you reflect on your character and add one detail or make one revision to your writing that’s inspired by the song. The great part of this twist is that you may have to flex your metaphoric mind and not think so literally!
SONG TITLE SUBTEXT, VERSION TWO: SHAKING UP A SCENE
Genres: Prose, Playwriting
Writing Process: Plot, Conflict, Character Development, Revision
If you have a chapter or scene that feels flat, try this slightly adjusted version of Song Title Subtext to add some layers and tinker with the stakes. To start, select an excerpt that’s a reasonable length to play around with – anywhere from one to three pages should do the trick. Give it a read so it’s fresh in your memory, and then hop into the game!
1. Shop for a Song. Do an image search for old album covers or vintage album covers and scroll until you find one that resonates with your character; or, scroll through your personal playlists or through band discographies to choose a theme song for your character. Regardless of which method you pick, make sure to pick an album/song title that fits either your character’s current state or relevant backstory.
2. Mine Your Choice. Answer the following questions about your choice to look at your character in a new light:
- How does the album and/or song title relate to your character’s current circumstances? If you need additional inspiration, play the song that you selected and listen to its tone, rhythm, and lyrics.
- Based on the answer above, what does your character stand to gain or lose? What aspects of these circumstances might change your character internally or externally if they are not withheld? What might change how others look at or relate to your character?
- Based on the answer above, is there anything that the character must say/not say, do/not do, acquire/get rid of in order to withhold this information, solve their problem, or make things better?
3. Make a Change. Looking over your answers, make at least one significant change to your excerpt. In addition to what characters say, consider also what the characters do, where they are, and what is around them. Anything in their internal or external environment is an opportunity that can be leveraged or changed to make the current circumstances multifaceted or more difficult for your character!
4. Fork in the Road. If you like your answers to #2, but you are having trouble applying them to your excerpt, perhaps you’ve discovered that there’s a more important scene that needs to be written than the one you have down on the page. Don’t fret – follow that fork in the road, and see where this new scene takes you!
I hope you have fun! Feel free to post about your subtext exploration in the comments. Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt, or guiding writing exercise in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available.