Category Archives: “The Help” Deconstruction series

“The Help” — A Guest Post About Subtext

Please welcome Donna Lodge, who contributes this challenging and rewarding take on the value and use of subtext in our stories.

I recently finished reading Linda Seger’s book, “Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath.” It’s a good res0urce, devoted to a often neglected aspect of our craft.

Seger discusses how to find subtext, how to write it (in dialogue and non-verbally through gestures, actions, settings, metaphors, symbols and many other devices), and how to keep it “sub” rather than overt. Each chapter ends with questions and exercises. Like Seger’s other books, her primary target is screenplay writers, but the content is equally useful for writing novels, plays, or directing.

Like Larry often says, the line between novelists and screenwriters is more a line in the sand than it is a true literay chasm.

Like the “Six Core Competencies” in “Story Engineering,” Seger deconstructs how to create subtext, and uses many spot-on examples from movies that show the nuts and bolts of the process.

Seger says, “Subtext is the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions. It’s the real, unadulterated truth. The text is the tip of the iceberg, but the subtext is everything underneath that bubbles up and informs the text…and conflict exists at this intersection of text and subtext…”

Applying Seger’s deconstruction to “The Help,” in Chapter One Aibileen listens to Miss Leefolt’s bridge club’s chatter while she serves lunch. The subtext in the passage below is close to the surface, which makes it easy to find and translate (or deconstruct).

In general, Stockett’s book  accumulates subtext (from most to least) when (1) a maid and her employer talk to each other; when (2) employers talk to each other, unwilling or unable to be direct; when (3) Skeeter talks with her mother/family/and almost but not quite fiancée; and (4) when “the help” talk to each other.

Typically, the women who comprise the help say what they mean, and mean what they say.

To better understand and build layers of meaning beneath the text, Seger offers a simple but powerful idea: write the subtext under the text or in the margins (a second draft undertaking).

AIBILEEN

“When I get around to Miss Walter, she don’t take but one little old half a sandwich for herself.”

Subtext: Miss Hilly isn’t taking care of her mama. Miss Walter knows her daughter wants to move her to that nursing home, out of her own home. Miss Walter is afraid, and that makes her loose her appetite.

MISS HILLY

“Mama, take another sandwich. You are skinny as a telephone pole. I keep telling her, if that Minny can’t cook she needs to just go on and fire her.”

Subtext: Mama won’t cooperate. It’s Minny’s fault, not mine. Minny’s a bad cook and that’s why Mama won’t eat.

MISS HILLY

“I think you’re malnutritioned, Mama. That Minny isn’t feeding you so that she can steal every last heirloom I have left. I’m going to the  powder room. Y’all watch her in case she collapses dead of hunger.”

Sub-text surfaces when her mother responds with, “I bet you’d love that.”

Seger notes that scripts have individual scene goals, which she calls the “Underlying Objective,” and a goal for the entire script, or a “Super-Objective.” The story goal is in the script’s text,

“…but films rich in subtext have hidden goals under the surface…their ‘Super-Objective. This objective, which exists on the subtextual level, helps drive the actor’s emotions and actions for the entire scene… and the more conscious the writer, the greater the possibility that the script will be unified by a clear objective, even if it lies under the surface.”

Seger quotes 1950’s director, Harold Clurman (Directors on Directing: A Source Book of the Modern Theater). Clurman directed the Broadway play, The Member of the Wedding, based on the film about a 12-year-old girl’s coming-of-age (book of same title written by Carson McCullers). What Seger calls the “Super Objective,” Clurman called the “Spine.”

He saw each character seeking the same objective, but each approached the action differently (as do Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter in “The Help”). From this notion, Clurman identified individual “spines” for each of the main characters, all related to the objective ‘to get connected.’ Clurman said, “A mighty loneliness emanates from this play. It is as if all the characters were separated from the world.” 

Sub-text, and only sub-text, delivers this particular conclusion on a platter.

Seger writes about ways in which the subtext-objective works, cites movies, and analyzes them.  Her book has a good balance of “What” and “How” – theory and application. All of which is instructive, and all of which can be applied, like “The Six Core Competencies” of “Story Engineering.”

Seger says, “For writers, this super-objective could also be called the subtext objective. It’s the driving force of the story…the underlying action that runs beneath the surface. The stronger the flow, the greater the desire to achieve this objective, and the more tension, conflict, and subtext there is. By having a subtext-objective, as well as a text objective, the underlying current adds depth and direction.”

The subtext-objective can work in three ways: (1) All the characters (except the antagonist) in a script/play/novel can be working toward the same super-objective (as do Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter). They may want the same thing, but are working toward it in different ways, which generates tension and conflict. (2) A major character might be working toward the super-objective, but other main/supporting characters may not have the same objective until later in the story. (3) The protagonist and antagonist will have opposing underlying-objectives and super-objectives.

I thought there were two choices of the super-objective or subtext-objective of the story, “The Help,” and of the main characters, Aibileen, Minny, and protagonist Skeeter. It could be defined as: to have freedom. As I looked at Seger’s examples, the second choice, which I think is more on target, is that the super-objective or subtext-objective of the story is: to have choice, which to me is less generic, more personal. For the antagonist of the story, Miss Hilly, the super-objective or subtext-objective of the story could be defined as: to prevent or deny choice.

Donna Lodge is a freelance writer. She’s writing a novel about Will Shakespeare, who time-travels to the Catskill Mountains as a stand-up comic. To her amazement, she got an “Honorable Mention” in the Writer’s Digest 2011 short story contest.

(Editor’s note… a killer concept, that.)

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“The Help” – A Happy Ending… ?

Great endings are hard to craft.

Fun to read… easy to take for granted when we do.  Unless it bombs.

My favorite author, Nelson Demille, totally tanked the ending of “Night Fall” when he concluded the story with a deus ex machina of preposterous proportions.  After hundreds of pages of rooting for the hero as he gathers evidence and positions the antagonists for a hard and gratifying fall, the ending had them all meeting with the press and the FBI for a come-to-Jesus outing of the truth… in the North tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

Even Demille admitted later that he really didn’t know how else to end this thing.  Which shows that, even at his level – believe me when I say, these A-list brand name authors have different standards than the rest of us, and sometimes they’re lower – at some point in the process we need to write our stories with a specific ending in mind. 

 I advocate that point occurring before you begin a draft, as defined during your story planning process.  (Read more about that HERE.)

This is one of the most powerful principles in all of storytelling.

 Every other milestone in our stories have criteria and timing attached. 

 But with endings… the timing is obvious… and the only other criteria is that it deliver an emotional experience – good or bad – to your reader.  That’s it.  Doesn’t have to be happy or sad, you don’t have to tie up all the loose ends, you don’t have to even end it, you can just stop if you want… provided it delivers the requisite emotional response.

Kathryn Stockett begins setting up the ending of “The Help” at the Second Plot Point, which occurs on page 452 (of the trade paperback edition) when Miss Skeeter tells her co-authors that Harper and Row has accepted their book for publication.

It’s on.  No turning back now.  The consequences of their actions are inevitable.

It is the anticipation and unfolding of those consequences that create the contextual missions for each of the remaining scenes in the book.  There are several storylines to wrap up, and each gets its moment at center stage, and in context to the dramatic circumstances that have been assigned to them earlier in the story.

Skeeter leaves town, gets a career.  Aibileen gets framed and fired, but it doesn’t bother her, she’s free.  And Minny… well, Minny certainly gets her pound of flesh out of the hide of Miss Hilly, who deserved much worse.

If you’re like me, I’m guessing that as you read this book you kept visualizing possible endings.  I was expecting to see Skeeter’s book explode the entire community into a frenzy of rebellion, violence and, ultimately, a changing of the culture.  Perhaps even the book becoming a national catalyst that would influence the entire civil rights movement, a Rosa Parks headline delivered in hardcover.

Stockett went nowhere near that type of ending

And in doing so, she teaches us how powerful a more subtle and character-driven ending can be.

To have there would have been a departure from the realistic tonality the book had maintained from the first page.  It would have been too Hollywood, as if Michael Bay had taken a crack at the final draft.

In a story that sought to be a serious thematic inquiry into a dark slice of American history, in retrospect I realize that the lighter touch was the only viable option.

Miss Skeeter’s book didn’t set the country free of racism. 

 It didn’t even set the characters free from it.  Rather, it set those characters free from allowing it to define them.  Through their courageous act of defiance and outrage, they became something more than their oppressors.

All the characters march forward into their lives as better people.  As quiet heroes who fought for and won their own freedom of will. 

This is one of the many lessons I take away from “The Help.” 

 In a character-driven story, the ending must be character-specific and thematically powerful.  In a plot-driven story, the ending can be bigger, it can be Hollywood.

This book challenges us to aim high, to bestow a gift to the world that reflects darkness through a lens of hope.  A book that invests the reader in the characters in a way that transcends empathy, that indeed become transcendent.

So many lessons for writers to learn from this book.  So many lessons for human beings to learn from reading it.

It remains to be seen how Hollywood will handle the ending of the adaptation (coming out in August), but I’m guessing it’ll remain true to the book itself… if for no other reason that Stockett was called in to help the screenwriter get it right.

The only real “rule” for our endings is this: it must remain true to the story just told, and reward the reader with something that resonates.

Beyond that, this is the one place in a story where the writer is pretty much alone with their instincts and the nature of the corner into which they’ve painted themselves.  The principles of story architecture lead the writer to this point, but the ending is where story and writer become one, and together they make their fate.

Wondering what you thought of the ending?

Hope you’ve enjoyed this series on “The Help.”

There’s already one wonderful guest post scheduled for next week that takes a closer look at subtext in this story, and more might surface as we move forward together.

 Next series… a deconstruction of my novel, “Bait and Switch,” which I’ve just re-released as an ebook (only 99 cents through July 31).

 Some have asked how the launch is going.  A few hundred books have sold, almost entirely because of this blog.  For all the noise about “please make it available on Nook!,” you can count those sales on one hand. 

So far I’m cynical about the whole social media aspect of this – bad news, since this is where he so-called gurus of self-published digital ebooks claim is the sweet spot… I did it, it didn’t work.  The best social media is word-of-mouth… so if you liked the book, please recommend it to someone.

Meanwhile, I’ll just take my starred review and go home. 

Kidding… the book will remain on Kindle, Smashwords and Nook, and eventually on iBook once it gets to through their weeks-long vetting process.  And I’ll keep experimenting with the various venues of pitching and pimping and promoting until I find something that actually works.

Maybe this…

NEW BOOK RELEASE – WARNING, THIS NOVEL MIGHT BE TOO HOT TO HANDLE!!!

 Does sex sell?  Let’s find out.

I’ve also just re-released my USA Today bestselling novel, “Darkness Bound,” on Kindle and Smashwords (so far).

Fair warning, it’s a highly sexual, dark and sexualized (meaning, the romance of seduction) thriller.

Not erotica, per se (it’s what I call a “relationship thriller, a sort of romance from a male point of view… this is far sexier than erotica (my opinion), as it relies on the context of seduction rather than explicitness, which it really isn’t… though you might need a shower when you’re done, and you’ll certain have something juicy to discuss with your significant other…), but rather, it’s dark and kinky and totally a guilty pleasure, one shared by several hundred thousand readers when it was published by Onyx ten years ago (the national radio campaign didn’t hurt either).  At the time it was mistakenly classified as “erotica” by the major bookclubs, probably because of the cover art of the original paperback.

Read the Publishers Weekly review, and if you like this kind of thing, please give it a shot.  It’s only $2.99, but on Smashwords (as a Kindle version through this venue, too) you can use the discount code – TD43M – to buy it for 99 cents, also until the end of July, when I’ll do a major release promotion.

 
 
 

Darkness Bound by Larry Brooks (Kindle Edition – Jul 12, 2011)
Thanks, as usual, for considering my work.

 

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