Writing Subtly: Talent, Sophistication, Subtext and Pragmatics

When I was very young I was enlisted in Music School, trying my best (and mostly failing) to learn how to play the piano and the sax. One day, my mother pointed to me a young man carrying a cello that was said to be the best cellist in town. She said to me: ‘That young man’s first teacher told him he had no talent whatsoever for playing the cello. But he changed teachers and kept working and look at him now. He’s better than his teachers.’ This is not an uncommon story. You know that saying: ‘Hard work trumps talent every time’? I believe in it. I’ve seen time and again very talented artists and writers never achieving anything while others less talented but hard working being able to do impressive stuff. I saw it again a few weeks ago when I was teaching Screenwriting to a young class of would-be film directors. Curiously enough (or maybe not) there was a gender gap: the girls in the class worked their asses off, while the boys were too sure of their talents. You could see the potential in some of the boys, but the effort wasn’t there, and if you don’t develop work habits when you are young, you’ll have a hard time later. Guess who’s got the best grades? As for me: I was lazy studying piano playing, but not when it came to writing. I was persistent and steady in my writing over the years and it has been paying off, I guess.

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But this is not a post about talent and hard work. It’s about something else. It’s about seeming effortless in writing. It’s about being subtle. Fluid writing seems a matter of talent but, to be sure, it’s more a matter of hard work. People often confuse sophistication with intellectual thinking. I’ve seen many writers and filmmakers pursue the dead end of intellectual thinking flabbergasted by the idea of showing intelligence or fascinated by the work of some fringe artist, while undervaluing the effort of execution and of learning how to be fluid, deep and sophisticated.

Let me go back to Hemingway. Here’s a piece of dialogue from ‘A FAREWELL TO ARMS’:

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(The leading couple is in bed. The protagonist is trying to convince his girl to marry him – she refuses.)

(…) ‘I am married. I’m married to you. Don’t I make a good wife?’

‘You’re a lovely wife.’

‘You see, darling, I had one experience of waiting to be married.’

‘I don’t want to hear about it.’

‘You know I don’t love anyone but you. You shouldn’t mind because someone else loved me.’

‘I do.’

‘You shouldn’t be jealous of some one who’s dead when you have everything.’

‘No, but I don’t want to hear about it.’

‘Poor darling. And I know you’ve been with all kinds of girls and it doesn’t matter to me.’

‘Couldn’t we be married privately some way?’

 

Hemingway goes through pages and pages of dialogue without any description. Everything in between, he trusts the reader to build on his/her own. So let me fill in the blanks – let me try to add some description to this dialogue (sorry Ernest):

 

‘I am married.’ She said, looking at me in the eye intensely, surprising me. ‘I’m married to you. Don’t I make a good wife?’ She kept trying to convince me that she was committed to me.

‘You’re a lovely wife’ I said, trying to calm her down.

‘You see, darling, I had one experience of waiting to be married.’ She explained as she remembered her lost love.

‘I don’t want to hear about it.’ I said, jealous of her memory.

‘You know I don’t love anyone but you. You shouldn’t mind because someone else loved me.’ She said, a little embarrassed.

‘I do.’ I knew she loved me even though I was jealous. But it was stronger than me. She tried to appease me.

‘You shouldn’t be jealous of some one who’s dead when you have everything.’ In reason, she was right. The man was dead, for Christ’s sake. But it still bothered me.

‘No, but I don’t want to hear about it.’

‘Poor darling.’ She said, with a condescending smile. ‘And I know you’ve been with all kinds of girls and it doesn’t matter to me.’

I just wanted to change the subject, come back to the matter at hand:

‘Couldn’t we be married privately some way?’

 

See how I messed it up? It’s not a bad text because I added description, it just stopped being a sophisticated text. It stopped being clever Hemingway, who respects and values his readers. This is where the adage ‘Show, don’t Tell’ comes to fruition. Subtlety is in rarefying the information to give the essential to the reader. Focus on the feeling, and not on what exactly is said. Focus on the subtext and not on the actual text. Robert Mckee will tell you as much. Dialogues in movies should focus on subtext. And I would add: and everything we write in fiction is the same – subtext is the key. What is subtext? It’s what’s said between the lines. It’s the core of the relationship. Not only the relationship between the characters but also of the relationship between writer and reader. (A core aspect of this is what I call ‘investment’ which I spoke about in here )

There’s this school of Psychology in Palo Alto, California, founded by Paul Watzlawick and others, that studies the pragmatics of Human communication.AVT_Paul-Watzlawick_8465

They say that there are two kinds of communication. In digital communication, everything is black and white, 0’s or 1’s. It’s all about information. But then there’s analogue communication, with all kinds of grey areas where not everything should be taken at face value. Most Human communication is this second kind, where the relationship is the core, not the information. So if I ask you if a cake you’ve eaten was good and you say ‘Yes’, but shrug your shoulders, I’ll feel you actually did NOT like the cake. The information coming from your words is not correct as you contradicted it with the shrug. This is the essence of subtext. The words in Hemingway’s dialogue are digital information, but the subtext between the lines is what actually defines the relationship. The subtlety comes from the knowledge that the readers will perceive the subtext more impressively than the actual text.

And there are rules to this communication. The Palo Alto school will tell you that ‘It’s impossible not-to communicate’; or ‘every communication is a commitment’; or ‘repeated communication defines the pattern in the relationship’. And other things we’ll talk about another time.

My point is: intelligent sophisticated writing is about going deep and working hard in the execution. Learn to be subtle by showing, not telling. When we read Hemingway’s dialogues we can guess the action, we can imagine the reactions. The essential is in the words being said. Being exchanged. And they’re more important because of the subtext they carry rather than the words themselves. Sophisticated writing is not about good ideas and intellectual thinking. It’s about learning about communication and working between the lines.

I must disagree with other people: you do not become a writer just because you write. That’s digital thinking. You become a writer when you are being read. It’s all about communication. And for this, you need to learn a whole lot of things. You need to learn your craft and you need to learn about people and much more. But it could be a truly wonderful journey. If you’re on your way – good luck.

 

5 thoughts on “Writing Subtly: Talent, Sophistication, Subtext and Pragmatics

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