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.