Subtext Step 4—Avoiding Overtext(64)
I first recognized the importance of this term while reviewing a Nicholl Prize winning script called The Jumper of Maine—a beautiful script which more than deserves its fellowship victory(65) . I was, therefore, agitated by how often it had this distracting habit of not trusting its readers to see its beauty.
In bumper sticker form, that’s a great way of describing what I mean by this new word [I insist on coining]:
Overtext happens whenever an author doesn’t trust her audience.
Basically, an author has written something which she knows in her heart is beautiful, or symbolic, or otherwise demonstrative of her mettle as an author and [instead of allowing it to be as she wrote it] she adds an extra stroke of explication to the canvas of her perfection. In doing so, more often than not, she spoils what she created.
I’ll use a scene from The Jumper of Maine to make this point (66). Again, remember that this isn’t done to tear down that script based on a minor imperfection; it is done to learn from a script which has within its walls, the ability to teach. (67)
There is an absolutely heart-rending scene in this script where a character with Alzheimer’s wants to leave her house but doesn’t because her family members have put a STOP sign above the front door. She then has this wonderful line about wanting to leave, “but the door won’t let me”.
And, if the scene had ended right there, the moment would have been a vividly authentic rendering of the costs and rewards of human frailty. Unfortunately, the author does not end the scene there, he extends it one beat further by having another character in his script state the obvious fact of, “that’s kind of the point”.
When I first read this script, I remember how the “extra beat” had thrown off the authenticity. It had made something which was just tragic [and by its tragedy, also perfect] less tragic and more artificial. In the “extra beat” I felt the author’s fingers typing on his keyboard. To me, it was as if the author were trying to call attention to the beauty he had just made.
In the “extra beat” I felt a tremendous anxiety.
I contend we add these unnecessary beats when we feel that we have written something good that is also subtle. We add them because we fear that what we have done will go unnoticed by the audience.
I think this fear is irrational. Readers are not [necessarily] poor readers. They come in spectrums just like everything else.
Let’s also take a minute to just be honest. If you are making a subtextual point about the costs and rewards of human frailty midway through your script about an ambulance driver with a debilitating case of Tourette’s (68), the readers who are still with you are going to be readers who fall on the “good” side of the reader spectrum. They are going to be readers who get what you are trying to do, and are interested in what you are trying to do.
It is to your benefit to trust those readers.
64 I should begin this sub-segment by acknowledging that once again I have made up a word. You won’t, in other words, find Overtext in The Elements of Style. If the first few segments of this book are any indication, the only thing I like as much as footnoting is… making up new words.
65 When I critique it in this section, I do so because its beauty necessarily exposed its flaw. Had it not been so eminently well-written, in general, I would not have been able to focus on the issue with overtext which kept coming up.
66 I’ll also recommend that you read the script. As I say all the time, if you don’t have it, and you want to read it, send me an email.
67 As usual, I’ll “paraphrase” the scene in question.
68 This is most of the information that would go into a logline for The Jumper of Maine. And, let me reiterate AGAIN: the script is more than worth the read.