Text and Subtext (writing)

So I’ll watch a lot of bad movies (particularly successful ones) in hopes of understanding what makes them work. It’s easy to dismiss weak stories, but I believe there is something to be learned from them.

The latest bad movie I watched was The Single Moms Club. Or should that be Tyler Perry’s The Single Moms Club? I’m not terribly familiar with Perry’s work, which is apparent simply for its startling lack of robots and ninjas, but this movie isn’t really bad. It’s just not very good. It’s a pretty safe, by the numbers bit of simplistic comfort food for the most part.

Except for this one point where one character starts writing a book called (surprise) The Single Moms Club. At this point the movie transforms its (obvious) subtext into pure text. Literally putting words on the screen to explain the premise and themes of the movie. It is one of the most blatantly unsubtle things I have ever seen in storytelling.

(The only other comparison I can think of is found in Star Trek: Into Darkness when young Spock calls old Spock just to have old Spock say Khan is dangerous and in no way advance or improve the plot. Just the writer using a character as a mouthpiece to tell us we should take Khan seriously.)

My first instinct in both cases is to get mad. As a writer, I work hard to create interesting stories, and I try to give my audience credit for being able to work out the obvious stuff themselves. But then comes a movie that literally spells out its message so blatantly and obviously that it Perry might as well pause the movie, step out in front of it, and lecture the audience.

It works though. The problem with being subtle is that people might miss it. If you’re obvious, the audience will usually be content with that. The audience is not a storyteller, nor does it spend a lot of time necessarily thinking about stories. That’s something easy to forget.

As a writer, I hang out with writers. We view writing in a different way than your average person. We care about a lot of things the average person won’t even notice. We dissect and analyze because that’s our job, but just as your average person doesn’t care about how plumbing works, just that the water is running, so your average reader / movie watcher doesn’t care much about subtleties of language, theme, and execution.

It’s not an excuse to write badly, but it is something to consider.

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