Jim Mercurio

Create Subtext With Inside Jokes

Create Subtext With Inside Jokes
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In my book the Craft of Scene Writing, I define subtext as a surprise of sorts. There is a reversal in the gap between text and subtext, between the spoken words and their actual meaning. Perfect subtext might even make us marvel at, “How did that mean thaaat?”

A crass example of what might be theoretically perfect subtext a line that simultaneously means its exact opposite is from Man Trouble when the Jack Nicholson character says, “I like to look at women as a whole.” Remember, we’re adults. I’m just telling you what the character said.

When “eff you” means “I love you” is a textbook opposite, too. However, diametrical opposition isn’t necessary. A surprising disparity often suffices. For instance, think of “I love you” as expressed in Casablanca – Here’s looking at you, Kid,” and We’ll always have Paris” or The Apartment – “Shut up and deal”.

Dialogue without subtext is boring. Audiences enjoy the puzzle” of deciphering the text. It engages them. You want to avoid being “on the nose” which means dialogue where the text and subtext are the same.

Here are some strategies on how to create dialogue with the most surprising subtext:

Ponder the moments in your life when spoken words were most biting in that they were extremely funny, snarky or mean. Another way, to think about it is who can you insult the best? Family and friends. And the beauty is that regardless of the subtlety or obscurity of the joke or insult, it lands effortlessly. Your shared history allows the other person to immediately understand the subtext.

Jim Mercurio

In some ways, these moments are so fun, insightful and often mean because they function like inside jokes. An inside joke is understood only by people with special knowledge of a topic; the humor and comprehension of the intent are exclusive a small group of people. My lifelong friend Jon and I can tease each other simply by saying the other’s name in our ‘recognizable-only-to-the-other-impression’ of our mutual junior high drunken art teacher.

Yet, I state in my book: there are no inside jokes in screenwriting. This means that the subtext of a line of dialogue — insult or compliment has to be understood by the general audience or average moviegoer. With the caveat that they have watched the movie up to that point.

This principle applies to other aspects of storytelling. Take homages, for example. If you write a 2-page scene in your sci-fi spec in which not much happens, but it’s a brilliant meta moment that functions as an homage to one of Tarkovsky’s unheralded masterpieces, then no. Just no. A joke, subtext or meaning that functions as the point of the scene shouldn’t resonate only for you, your friends, or a few obsessive Tarkovsky junkies. It has to connect with the overwhelming majority of the audience.

Inside Jokes

Inside jokes have subtle and clever subtext. They are satisfying. They make you feel smart and included. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could use them? Hmm? Well, maybe we can. In Molly’s Game, Molly tells her lawyer Charlie that she won’t give up the dirt she has on several powerful people because she wants to preserve the reputation of her name. He says that no one cares about her good name. She says she does:



Tell me why!

Because it’s all I have left. Because it’s my name. “And I’ll never have another.”

If the moment stopped here, most of us would miss this “inside joke”the insight of a reference she is making. But Sorkin and the script let us in on “the joke.”

Now you read The Crucible?

Molly’s Game

This line expresses a playful frustration that it wasn’t until recently that Molly read The Crucible. But this beat also clarifies that her final line is a reference to the play. In case, you don’t know the play, some off-the-cuff banter earlier in the movie allows Charlie to supply a quick crib sheet for us that frames the moral of the play in a way that applies to Molly and her story.

Sorkin did work to turn an inside joke out. The script layers in important pieces of information to allow the audience to understand more of the film’s intention. (Search the script for “crucible” and see how the setups and payoffs play out.)


Context isn’t exactly a sexy concept, but setup and context make some of your best lines possible. The more specific you are with setting up the world and details that pertain to the character and story, the more opportunities you will have in creating organic payoffs and surprises. Let your viewers in on the joke and they will understand even the most subtle lines and their veiled intent.

IF the audience simply knows that two characters are in a battle of wits and are exchanging insults, this gives your dialogue amazing leeway. Regardless of the next line, we will understand the utterance as an insult. That might give you half of the context you need to make the line work.

In workshops, I will give the students an absurd non sequitur as a line of dialogue — such as“Whatever you say, Mr. Camembert,” or “One word: Sheboygan,” — and challenge them to create a context and backstory that gives the lines immediately understood subtext that is specific and on point. It ends up being not that hard.

On The Nose Thematically

When dialogue is on the nose dramatically, text and subtext are the same. Dialogue that is “on the nose” thematically is didactic: the story’s meaning is explained in a clunky, cumbersome and often overly intellectual way. In, the same way you use setup and context above, you can reframe (put something into a new perspective) story elements to express your themes.

In the movie Gattaca, we know that their society has practically mastered eugenics and doctors can modify genes so that babies are born almost physically perfect. In this world, sophisticated but ubiquitous machines assess a person’s status in society by evaluating even the tiniest sample of a person’s DNA: urine, blood, hair, skin follicles, etc.

There is a meet-cute moment where Irene (Uma Thurman) offers Vincent (Ethan Hawke) a strand of her hair so that he may evaluate her as a potential lover. Here’s my purposefully awful rewrite of that scene with clunky didactic dialogue that destroys all of the “cute” and “romance”:

I buy into the societal standard of the importance of genetics and believe that my flawed heart makes me imperfect and possibly unlovable.

I think character and hard work can overcome genetics. I ignore genetic imperfections and have confidence in myself. You should, too.

This strand of hair will let you accurately evaluate my genetic status.

Not necessary. I will take you just how you are.


Let’s see how Gattaca actually handled these ideas as visuals and subtext in this clip.

This scene embodies all of the ideas that were in my ‘clunkathon’ version without being “on the nose” thematically. Instead, it incorporates the genre, a small prop, the nature of the world, and character orchestration to effortlessly express deeper ideas in service of the theme without sacrificing the story’s dramatic needs.

Secrets Revealed

With our friends and family, inside jokes are so natural because we know where their bodies are buried. You know where your characters’ bodies” (secrets) are buried, so bury them — or depending on the metaphor, UNBURY them — for your audience. Whatever your audience or other characters know about a character is fair game. If they don’t know something you know, let them in on it; turn an inside joke out.

In standup, there is a term called “laying pipe” which means setting up a punchline. You have to be careful that a joke or line doesn’t require you to lay too much pipe. All the setup work might not be worth it for the payoff/punchline/subtext.

Sometimes the magical subtext is compact and self-contained. The moment itself requires no additional context. There is enough context in the moment to make it all clear. In Escape from Alcatraz, a character asks Clint Eastwood’s protagonist, “What was your childhood like?” His response: “Short.” We get it.

When setup is necessary, aim to be pithy and compact. The more context and information the audience knows, the smoother your storytelling can be. Let’s see how this all comes together in a line from Killing Eve.

Killing Eve

In Killing Eve, Sandra Oh plays Eve an MI6 agent whose obsessive relationship and dangerous cat-and-mouse pursuit of a flamboyant psychopathic female assassin positions her as sort of a specialist on the topic. Working on a murder case, Eve quickly deduces the existence of a new assassin because her unassuming style contrasts with the attention-seeking assassin that fueled the first season.

As we see the assassin disguised as a cleaning woman (never seeing her face), casually enter a man’s office and poison his coffee, Eve describes her in voiceover:

It has to be someone who can go about their business without anyone noticing because what they do is seemingly uninteresting.

Later, she adds….

They’re not important; they’re invisible. It’s the kind of woman who people look at every day and never see.

She eventually briefs her team on the assassin who she nicknames The Ghost. We are watching Eve, who is played by a middle-aged woman whose ethnicity is Korean. Here’s the only other thing we need to know (and the audience does): one of the team members Hugo is a white, smug, entitled, wealthy Oxford grad.

late to middle age, looks like an immigrant worker, so she’s not white

— What makes you think that?

The fact that you just interrupted me mid-sentence makes me think that.

This final line and its subtext sprout effortlessly and organically from what we know about the show, the genre, and specifically here, the characters and even the casting.

Organize all that the audience and characters know to create dialogue and scenes that create surprising and sublime subtext. Integrate the real meaning of a moment or story into the fabric of the story.

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