Let’s Talk About Subtext In Screenwriting
In screenwriting, subtext is implicit (intimated) versus explicit (stated) – a different layer of intention and depth. Using it expands your toolbox allowing you to say many different things without taking up more room on the page. It adds weight and other levels to your work, creates umami, a fifth flavor – literally ‘deliciousness’ to use a foodie term.
Any screenplay should sell itself on the basis of a great concept and good tale, well-told. No story should rely on subtext to work for many reasons, primary among them being that some people don’t see deeper layers either on a first reading – or at all.
If you interpret homoeroticism in Top Gun then well and good. But without a solid, interesting story to underpin it and great high concept (the Navy’s elite fighter school), that film wouldn’t have been the hit it was.
In the film The Verdict, director Sidney Lumet used a concept called ‘chiaroscuro’ to light and frame the scenes. He wanted a muted landscape to reflect the inner character that Paul Newman brilliantly rendered. But did anyone notice that interesting fact or were we all more compelled by the story of an alcoholic, self-destructive attorney struggling to forgive himself for losing his hero battle a decade before?
Is the Fast and Furious franchise over-burdened with layers of meaning? Not quite. Fast cars, big dudes getting in each other’s faces, and hella drift sequences are its stock-in-trade. And that’s all it really needs.
But having said that, subtext is an important aspect of any writing.
Most dialogue in a movie gives information – stated explicitly. That’s its purpose. Can there be a deeper meaning to dialogue when possible? Absolutely. That’s the implicit part, the subtext.
Done right, the purpose of dialogue is three-fold:
- Text, the words at face value.
- Context the situation under which the words are being said.
- Subtext, the meaning under the words.
Add also: Intent: what is the purpose of the dialogue vis-a-vie the story and character?
Perhaps the most humorous example of intent is Woody Allen’s sly, fourth wall technique in Annie Hall where Alvy Singer (Woody) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) have their first meaningful encounter at a party and what they say is in stark contrast to what they think.
The context is their obvious attraction to each other which has been slowly manifesting itself. Without the context, none of this scene could be subtextually relevant because the underlying intent wouldn’t be there.
EXT. BALCONY – DAY
While the party continues inside, Alvy and Annie have their drinks on the balcony.
ALVY (pointing toward apartment)
So, did you do shoot the photographs in there or what?
Yeah, yeah, I sorta dabble around, you know.
Annie’s thoughts pop up on the screen as she talks: I dabble? me-what a jerk!
They’re … they’re… they’re wonderful, you know.
They have … they have, uh … a … a quality.
As do Alvy’s: You are a great-looking girl.
Well, I-I-I would-I would like to take
a serious photography course soon.
He probably thinks I’m a yo-yo.
Photography’s interesting, ’cause, you
know, it’s-it’s a new art form, and a, uh, a set of aesthetic criteria have not emerged yet.
I wonder what she looks like naked?
Aesthetic criteria? You mean, whether
it’s, uh, good photo or not?
I’m not smart enough for him. Hang in there.
The-the medium enters in as a condition
of the art form itself. That’s-
I don’t know what I’m saying. She senses I’m shallow.
Well, well, I … to me-I … I mean,
it’s-it’s-it’s all instinctive, you know.
God, I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a shmuck like the others.
Subtext (in context) delivers on a completely different level to an audience, making even a static scene bloom with interesting moments. This is a hard technique to master but if you look for opportunities, they will present themselves.
In Casino Royale the first Bond introducing Daniel Craig as the newest iteration of the legendary superspy, the typical James Bond martini line is subtextually subverted nicely.
An irritated Bond orders a martini:
Shaken or stirred?
Does it look like I give a damn?
To those who have never seen a Bond film, this is fine on the face of it (text/context.) After all, he’d just lost millions playing poker and he’s miffed. But to Bond fans who know the franchise tropes this is somewhat shocking, and a masterful way of subtextually saying ‘this ain’t your father’s James Bond’ with that simple exchange.
The classic Cool Hand Luke abounds with symbolism, subtextual dialogue, and subtextual scenes.
The famous “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” is said without a hint of sarcasm by the Captain played by Strother Martin as he thrashes Luke into submission. The line resonates like a clanging bell because it’s the establishment telling the youth of the day: we don’t like your independence one damned bit and we will beat you into falling in line with our values. The moment is crucial in the story so it serves that purpose first. But the larger meaning is there also, given the growing trend at the time for celebrated anti-heroes who pushed back at society in the 60’s.
Horror films don’t usually deal in much subtext, but the tight Attack The Block fairly drips with it at times. In a scene where the lads hilariously drag the dead alien to a group of their female friends to show it off we get this exchange:
MOSES and TIA’S eyes meet.
You’re tellin’ me that fell out of the sky?
And did that to your face?
So you…killed it? Yeah.
TIA shakes her head, tuts.
Pretty clear that Tia, despite being the same age as Moses and growing up in the same neighborhood thinks Moses is an out-of-control brat. This is a subtextual way of showing Moses’ issues of ego and immaturity, and his angry responses to anything he can’t control.
There are also ways to speak to the audience subtextually through the screenplay’s scenes themselves.
The ‘rules’ are basically the same: Intent, Text, Context, Subtext.
The opening scene itself in Cool Hand Luke speaks to the much larger motif of the movie. Luke’s insanely great introduction is seeing him drunk as he cuts the heads off of parking meters all the way down the street.
The subtextual message here is symbolized by the parking meters representing society’s rules and this man, this rebel, who will not comply with those rules attacking in the form of this anti-social act.
There’s a powerful, powerful scene in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals” where President Bartlet rails against God in a church for taking his beloved secretary and friend in a stupid car accident.
He says in Latin so most of us don’t really understand the text:
Am I to believe these acts are from a pious god?
A just god? A wise God? To hell with your punishments.
To hell with you.
But we totally get the meaning because the subtext is clear as Martin Sheen then drops a cigarette he’s smoking onto the cathedral floor and grinds it out in a show of anger and deliberate disrespect for god’s seemingly arbitrary nature.
An even deeper dive into the subtext of that scene is that Bartlett feels tremendous guilt over the tragic death because he asked Mrs. Landingham to bring her new car back to the White House after she picked it up so he could ‘kick the tires’ – and she was killed while driving it back to the White House.
Endeavour, starring Shaun Evans and written almost exclusively by the supremely talented Russell Lewis does subtext so very well.
In this prequel to the legendary Brit series, Inspector Morse’s early days as a DS in Oxford are wonderfully detailed. His push-pull romantic relationship with his mentor’s daughter Jane (Sara Vickers) is a great B-story that makes you ache for resolution.
In one scene, they’ve reconnected at a housewarming and they’re on a roof looking out over the beautiful city. He’s standing a distance from the ledge. We think its perhaps from fear of heights. But —
Jane at the ledge turns to Morse who is standing some feet away.
You can’t see it from there. Come closer.
Morse has a half-smile on his face that turns serious as he considers Jane.
This is as close as I get.
Meaning that despite having a strong attraction to her, after being rejected by Jane previously, Morse will not breach that invisible wall between them again. Once burned, twice shy.
Text, intent, subtext, context.
The amazingly entertaining and well-written series Glee did great subtext throughout, but especially using the musical numbers.
When Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) meet for the first time at the Dalton Academy while Kurt is spying on the competition, Blaine leads the a capella group The Warblers in Katy Perry’s pop anthem Teenage Dream.
Kurt is delighted – more than delighted – as he discovers that Blaine is talented, matching his own level of talent – and handsome (this is the couple’s “meet cute” moment also.) And, that here the glee club is celebrated “like rock stars.” No slushies. Also, that being gay isn’t an indictment at Dalton Academy, but rather the young men there are wholly embraced for who they are without judgment. It’s a wonderful sequence, expertly designed and beautifully rendered because the text, intent, subtext, and context are all in place on many levels and delivered via this musical scene. Wow.
In Sex Education the lovely, complicated Maeve and charming, fumbling Otis share a nice moment after they’ve just tried to help a classmate. As they walk home and talk, Maeve is chilly so Otis valiantly gives her his sweater.
A few episodes later while Maeve is folding the sweater to give it back, she brings it close, closing her eyes and inhaling the essence of a young man who she is falling in love with, but won’t admit even to herself. It’s a small, quiet gesture, easy to miss, but the subtext shouts and sets up future moments between them as they continue their romantic dance.
If you thought Signs worked as a horror-thriller about a family on a farm terrorized by aliens, good enough. There are stark inconsistencies to the story to be sure that make you wonder at times what’s going on but all-in-all it’s a terribly effective horror flick.
But, is Signs a story about aliens invading Earth and attacking a rural family or is it actually demons coming after a fallen Episcopal priest? The clues that speak to the story inconsistencies that this particular demonic interpretation resolves are there hidden if you look. Start with the fact that only holy water, water “blessed” by the farmer’s daughter who he calls his “angel”, harms them and work through it and you can see there’s a really interesting layer of subtext (demonology as invasion) given by the M. Night Shyamalan film that may have escaped us on first review.
A FEW MORE THINGS…
A lot of detective shows use subtext to interview a suspect they feel is guilty, but can’t directly accuse.
The award-winning, classic TV series Columbo probably did this best, first, not only because the character played brilliantly by Peter Falk was so disingenuous and disarming at times you never knew if he was being clever or just genuinely interested in a decoration that ‘Mrs. Columbo would hate because it’s too green and would remind her of that place we went last year that had terrible food.’
Is that a hint for the suspect, we wonder? A subtextual warning that he’s murderer, or just another nutty Columbo moment.
His “Just one more thing…” was an invitation to pay attention because he was about to throw the hook out to put the criminal in a very uncomfortable position.
This approach is so powerful that actual police departments use it. It’s called eponymously enough “The Columbo Technique.”
There are a few cautions to creating and using subtext.
Don’t write subtext into the narrative/action. If you’re going to use subtext it has to be clear from context and intent. Saying something to the reader directly (even though it aids the read) doesn’t really make it available to the audience and so it will ultimately fail.
Also, sometimes a cigar should just be a cigar to paraphrase an apocryphal Sigmund Freud joke. Trying to insert (uh, no pun intended) subtext into everything is mind-numbing and exhausting for both reader and writer. There should be plenty of times when a character is just saying what they mean.
In the fabulous and funny The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a perfect 1950s wife with a perfect life – until her husband decides he doesn’t want to be married anymore. Her subsequent emotional breakdown is just that – and it’s perfectly written. No funnies, no quips, no underlying intent – just a terribly distraught woman suffering from a ton of shattered dreams that landed on her carefully-coifed head. Powerful and perfect because it’s straight ahead.
Subtext is wondrous. It can make a work deeper, richer and more intense. It can make your screenplay worth reading multiple times because a reader wants to get all the goodies you put in there.
But be careful. It can also easily confuse a reader. Write your first draft then in 2nd or 3rd draft look for subtextual opportunities both in dialogue and in the scenes themselves.
Even without deliberately adding any subtext, some will most likely be there already – or at least present clear opportunities that can be mined. I once wrote a sci-fi horror film that two producers thought was a clear allegory for AIDS. That was never my intent, but I didn’t correct them.
Once you start down this path you’ll soon be able to add it to your own work. Happy writing!
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