Bad Writing: When Your Scene Is About What It Seems to Be About

I recently shut down a writing forum I was involved with. I gathered up some of my longer posts (usually responses to questions) and I’ll be sharing them here. They may not be precisely on topic (Resistance) but they have value. Or, you can skip them.

Subtext is the most important part of storytelling.

When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.

For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”

The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.

As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”

Bill and Sara Coming Apart

Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m tired.”

She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”

He flicked a glance her way, then stood.

“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”

Now she looked up.

“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.

“I think I will.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.

Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.

If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.

Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”

As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.

He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.

“I need you to love me, Sara.”

Now she looked up.

“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.

“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.

Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.

Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.

Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.

I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.

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