Thursday, November 11, 2010

transcending the literal

I had a creative writing prof in college who was always talking about "transcending the literal" and after 15 years I think I can finally articulate what he meant.

The literal is the "text" or plot of the story: what happens to move the characters from point A to point B. A story can function on merely the literal. But it will be shallow and forgettable.

The "transcendence," you see, is that elusive thing, the "point" or "moral" of the story. We might call this the "subtext," which is rather ironic, since "sub" means "below," and to "transcend" has connotations of rising above. One definition of "transcend" means "to surpass; to exist above and independent of."

You might say, the plot or text is the bones and muscles of your story; the subtext is its soul. Granted, some stories, like some people, have rather thin and weak souls.

In the last week I've seen "RED," starring Bruce Willis, and "Predators," with Adrian Brody. They were very similar types of movies--both big retro action flicks, although the former was funny and a bit spoofy, and the latter was grim and a bit maudlin. But they both basically worked.

"RED" had a couple of minor romantic subplots that were dotted in like gold beads on an embroidery sampler, plus some allusions to honor and self-sacrifice, and Doing The Right Thing instead of Every Man For Himself. None of it was laid on heavily, but those little dabs of subtext fed our expectations of what Good Guys and Bad Guys were supposed to do in these kinds of movies, so we went away happy. In fact, the light touch with which these "morals" were applied, actually added to the success of the story; anything more would have seemed like artificial attempts at "depth."

"Predators" took the opposite tactic--all of its viewpoint characters were bad people, anti-heroes, and the viewer can really only identify with them via their being humans, fighting for survival against monsters. No one was alloted more than a line or two of backstory, but you knew what kind of people they were by the way they behaved and spoke to each other. That's a combination of skillful writing, directing, and acting, when you can convey character in such a small space, and without dragging down the pace. (Although, in an action flick, the director uses those moments of character development to allow some downtime; without them, the pace is too frenetic and becomes numbing.) The subtexts of "Predators" had to do with humans being shades of gray, not all good or bad, and sometimes they hide their true natures. Again, these themes were not the main focus of the story. They just made it go down easier.

There are, of course, instances where the pendulum swings the other way: where the subtext outweighs the text and drags it down. We often say such a story is "preachy."

Recently I read two short stories that were basically just arguments about religion. One was a rather scornful depiction of believers and quasi-believers and how they react to mysterious events. The other was a "dialogue" between God and a reporter that ended with the affirmation: "there is no one true faith." (Wow. Thanks for that, guy.)

Neither story worked because the subtext was all there was. Neither of them had sympathetic characters or a plot to build suspense. The characters were just mouthpieces for the writer's viewpoint, staged in a situation where they could talk about it.

I think it's safe to say a story needs a balance of text and subtext to be satisfying; the two exist on a spectrum and you may need more of one or the other for a given type of story. I think the best stories tend to have a balance of the two, in hefty amounts.

Right now I'm watching the Swedish movie adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and wow is it intense. I haven't read the book yet; when I picked it up last year it seemed dense and hard to get into (and frankly I haven't had the time or brainspace lately to spare), but based on the strength of the movie I shall take another stab at it. I do know, based on critical reviews, that Stieg Larsson had a definite point to make in that book, and the rocketship plot is in complete and total service to that point. Text and subtext, in perfect synergy.


AJ Milne said...

... or: it needs to be about more than it's about.

(... which, yes, is probably even more oblique a way of putting it than 'transcending the literal'. I can haz creative writing teaching gig?)

Holly said...

LOL--sure, why not? The concept is so difficult to explain. Even when people grasp the concept in criticism, they often don't see why it's necessary, or how they can accomplish it in their own work.

So stating it as many different ways as possible is probably a good thing.

AJ Milne said...

... I'd add also, tho' maybe it's more preference than prescription, that the best subtexts are complex, possibly even conflicted. Or more commentary around than message upon. The straight fable or parable that's is meant to deliver a simple, direct message, albeit indirectly, still as often comes off as a handbill, not a story. As Goldwyn allegedly put it: 'You want to send a message, send a telegram'.

My wild theory is: it works best when the author isn't so much deliberately trying as letting it happen; it bleeds into everything, because of what's on their mind--the characters don't so much say it as live it, and it's because of who they are, how they were created. The author probably has more than an inkling that it's there, but if you asked them what they're trying to say, the answer would be: look, it's complicated. That's why you have to read the story. If I could just tell you right now, in this two or twenty minute discussion, I would, and it would save us a lot of time, wouldn't it?

Holly said...

I agree. Form must follow function.

On the rare occasions I've tried to start a story from a theme or point I wanted to make, the thing has almost always died on the vine.

I'm trying to write my sixth Trace story now, and the original idea was to work in some commentary about the media (specifically, muckraking newspaper writers) shaping public opinion. It's a little like giving birth to breach siamese twins, I imagine.

I think you are right about it needing to be more organic--a whiff of smoke rather than a burning bush--as a result of the characters' complete immersion in their world, and the reader's complete immersion in the characters' POV.

You can see why I'm mulling this over. :-)