Why Subtext is Better than Text
by Janis Cortese
I'm one of those loud people who feel a deep desire to not allow myself
manipulated or controlled. I dislike in the extreme feeling as if something I've done wasn't truly my choice, or that I was shepherded toward something without my knowledge or consent. I don't necessary dislike constraints; we all have to live with constraints on our behavior. But I like to choose them, freely, with a full understanding of what benefits accrue to voluntarily accepting the constraint.
Text is constraint. Subtext is freedom.
Okay, what the hell do I mean by this?
Writing fanfiction in a given universe is akin to what I call ballroom dancing in a minefield. If you're the sort of writer who likes sticking to canon, as I am, what you are aiming for is a story that will avoid the preexisting pitfalls of the canon, leave the universe untouched as we see it on screen, and still flow naturally. You want to design a dance that will avoid all the mines, but that will seem so effortless and fluid that, if the mines were removed from the dance floor, you wouldn't feel the need to change one single step of the dance. (Writing historical fiction is similar, which is why writing fanfiction is the perfect training ground for novelizing the Revolutionary War or Hannibal's march over the Alps.)
The fewer mines -- in other words, the fewer points at which the canon is pinned down unambiguously -- the more freedom you get to dance. When I write fanfiction, I like to have the maximum amount of freedom in which to move. I want to be given as much to work with as I need but for the canon to stop handing me material at a certain point so that I can take over from there.
For example, I do a lot of writing lately in the A&E series "Hornblower" movies. And anyone who is familiar with that universe knows that Horatio and Archie are as close to an OTP as exists there, or pretty much anywhere else. These men are not only achingly gorgeous but would clearly walk over hot coals for one another and have engaged in touching and fond and meaningful looks that would scream "They're so doing it!" were one or the other of them female. It's subtext, but it's so close to the surface that if you squint and shut one eye, it's there plain as day.
And yet, I'm perfectly happy that they weren't shown "doing it" on screen.
Well, okay. I sure wouldn't have complained if we'd seen them climbing down one another's throats, let's face it. They're both gorgeous, and watching them licking each other's tongues wouldn't really be the worst thing that's ever happened to me. I think I could endure.
But as a writer, it would be constraining. Suppose the producers decided to show them finally falling into one another's arms and simply kissing at the end of "The Duchess and the Devil," a movie where the subtext is just about as barely "sub" as it's possible to be before it pokes up above the surface and becomes "text." Sure, I would have gotten the thrill of seeing two celestially beautiful characters playing tonsil hockey on screen, but what about as a writer?
Well, I wouldn't have been able to posit when they kissed, then. I wouldn't have had the freedom to put that first kiss where I wanted it. I'd have been stuck with someone else's decision. Not only would it have been yet another mine that I had to incorporate into my dance, but it would have been dropped smack-dab into a part of the dance floor that I was guaranteed to use. What a pain in the ass!
This is similar to what happened with "Stargate SG-1." A rarity among the slashers for that show, I actually found Sam/Jack to be plausible and a fun pairing to write. But when the producers actually tried to write it in and do it canonically, they fucked it up, didn't they? If I were still writing S/J in "Stargate SG-1," I'd have to choreograph my dance around this big, stinky turd in the middle of the damned floor! Get that turd off the dance floor, it's in my way!
Don't turn subtext into text, for pete's sake! I'll do that . as a fanfiction writer, that's my damned job. It's my fucking prerogative to determine when Horatio and Archie finally succumbed to one another's considerable charms and each decided that the balm of the other's ardor was worth the risk of hanging. I'll determine when Sam and Jack found out for themselves just how lovely it was to feel the other's body heat and, "What the hell are we going to do about this, sir?" Slash, het, whatever . I want control. Subtext gives it to me.
Making the subtext into text takes it away.