Thursday, July 31, 2008

Looking for Subtext? Make it Musical

I was watching the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Once More With Feeling" (That's ep 7 of season 6) last night, and it got me to thinking about how Joss Whedon uses the songs to show things the characters are thinking and feeling that they would never otherwise express to each other.

Of course, this is a longtime tradition in American musical films, and Joss is brilliantly following in illustrious footsteps here. But how does this apply to my (or your) writing? Well, bear with me. I'm going to weird places here.

The conceit in this episode is that the characters are all keeping secrets from each other. Then a demon arrives in town with the power to force people to sing and dance in musical numbers that reveal these secrets. So Buffy sings to the vampires as she stakes them, confessing that her heart's just not in it. Spike tries to get make Buffy leave, but is musically forced to confess that he loves her but knows she's using him.

When it come to dialogue, the best has both text (the actual words you're reading) and subtext, which is what's underneath the words. The classic example is a couple bickering in a romantic comedy. Sure, the text has them fighting. But the subtext is that they are wildly attracted to each other.

So how do you find the subtext? It's not always as obvious as that romantic comedy example. Even in scenes where the text is most important, I like to have a bit of subtext to add layers. There's a scene right at the top of my novel where the heroine converses briefly with her family. The text here is vital, conveying backstory and exposition. But one of these people is the villain, and I want to foreshadow that without giving it away. I also want to convey the villain's attitude toward the world and the heroine, to hint at the personality traits that make him/her a villain.

How the hell do I do that without mustache twirling or outright stating it? And just what is this villain's attitude toward these things? I need to do more character work on him/her and nail it down.

So Buffy the Musical inspired me. Here were characters singing their real attitudes and feelings. So I imagined a musical number in this problematic scene in my novel where the villain sings, revealing who s/he is and what his/her agenda might be. None of this will ever appear in print. I'm no lyricist or musician. But I did picture him/her, suddenly alone at the top of a staircase, looking down on the folks s/he considers to be ants, singing narcissistically about plans to take over the world, and the weird mixture of love and hate s/he feels for the heroine. The mood and tone of my imaginary music, the posture of the singer, how I'd shoot the number, all these things clue me in on what's going on with the villain and the subtext of the conversation.

Now I just have to somehow incorporate what I've learned into the dialogue in the scene. Still not easy, but at least I have a handle on what it is I'm trying to convey.

So what type of musical number would your problematic scene become if you suddenly made it a musical? Is it a rocking number with guitars and a heavy baseline? Or do scantily clad dancing girls appear as your hero dons a straw hat and tap dances? Just another crazy way to get inside your characters and scenes and figure out what the hell you're doing.


Margie said...

What a great idea!! BTW, that is one of my favorite Buffy episodes. The song I liked best was the one Buffy was singing at the end. And the Anya/Xander number was funny too.


Nina Berry said...

Isn't that ep of Buffy the best? I agree, the number at the end with Buffy is just stellar, very moving. The Xander/Anya number is totally like a terrific bit from a 30's musical. Love it!

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

I like your blog, and have bookmarked it (I hope you don't mind). I've been playing around with the idea of trying to write a musical about Porter Rockwell (my son recently got his degree in music composition and used one of my poetry books as the text for his final project). Maybe I will get inspired and work on it again!

Nina Berry said...

You bookmarked my blog? I'm thrilled! And boy, writing a musical is an ambitious and fabulous idea. Go for it, and good luck!