What is SUBTEXT in screenplays?
In short, it’s the difference between what we actually and and what we can’t, or won’t say. It reflects what is perceived compared what is being said, or not said.
The greater the difference, the better.
Subtext is used to add layers, depth, richness and texture to screenplays through mystery, intrigue and interest. It makes the audience engage more deeply with the story as they figure out what is going on at a primal level beneath the superficiality of what’s on screen.
It’s the intangible subtleties of the visceral human condition that adds subtext to a good screenplay. It beats the predictability, flatness and boredom associated with “on the nose” direct dialogue. Subtext can also be added to a screenplay through character actions and tone.
Subtext refers to how a recipient interprets a visual (action) and auditory (dialogue) stimulus. But more importantly, how these messages are deliberately manipulated by the sender to influence conclusions, assumptions and outcomes.
Subtext is often deliberate. It is designed to mislead. When it is more calculated, it reveals a character’s underlying agenda and personal goals.
Isn’t the joy of human communication wonderful? Or even complex? Imagine if computers ran on subtextual commands rather than specific unambiguous instructions? As we grow older we’re typified by our propensity to never say what we truly mean or feel.
In Hollywood, this classifies you as an outlaw. This ranges from a white lie to a downright lie. Maybe a riddle, or a musing that appears to have nothing to do with the subject at hand. This even applies to children who are often used as pawns of absolute truth in cinema.
Subtext is rarely used in children’s dialogue. They generally say what they want, when they want, how they want. Except of course when they realise, they may get into trouble. Did you eat all those cookies? The said child shakes his head “no” despite chocolate chips smearing his lips and crumbs staining his clothes.
The older we get, the better we lie. Hence the expression “read between the lines”. Since dialogue is so economic we writers must ask “what are we saying?”, “what are we trying to say?” and “what are really saying?” This is called subtext, the real meaning that lies beneath the surface of words our characters utter.
WHY DO WE DO IT?
- To avoid hurting someone’s feelings
- To avoid a conflict
- To avoid being vulnerable, especially when the stakes are high
- To control or influence another character
- To gain an unfair advantage of a situation
- To survive a threat
Subtext can be introduced into a screenplay from a superior (audience knows what’s going on, but character doesn’t) or an inferior position.
Consider a scene where a couple is having dinner and the guy sees an ex with whom he ended things badly. He wants to get the hell out of there, pronto. So he hints to his current date “The service here is atrocious. Let’s go to Jerry’s”. We can complicate the scene by making his date want to stay. The guy continues with a litany of excuses to leave; the restaurant’s too noisy, too expensive, he doesn’t like the menu, it’s drafty, he’s underdressed. Anything, but the real reason he wants to leave. He doesn’t want to reveal the truth because his current date will want details on why and how the said relationship ended. The truth can hurt.
Much subtext can be elicited through seemingly vague, irrelevant dialogue, but also through tonality. Tonality can be conveyed via sarcasm, pitch, speed, inflections and modulation of voice. Consider the phrase “So lovely to see you”. Think about how the ways this can be said to convey a polar spectrum of meanings, ranging from “you’ve made my day” to “get away from me”.
Subtext can also be expressed through actions. Consider the above scene where the guy accidentally/ on purpose spills wine on his shirt as a pretext for having to leave. Imagine if he locked eyes with his former lover and holds his current date’s hand to show that he’s moved on? All this, without uttering a single word. Did he cheat on his former lover? Is she stalking him?
Mad Men scripts master the art of subtext, sometimes to a fault when the real text can’t be unravelled. Fans of the show are endlessly titillated as they are absorbed into the story. Critics argue that they don’t have a clue what’s going on. Consider episode 10 of series 3 “The Color Blue” where Don Draper is in bed with his daughter’s teacher and they discuss the color blue. She says “What if it wasn’t really blue, but we just thought it was?” What does this say about perception, when they were previously discussing whether Don was committing adultery or not? Don segues into a speech about demographics to justify his adultery. Does he believe he’s having an affair? Does he care? Does he love his wife? What’s his conscience saying?
Where did all this come from? Cast your mind back to the riddles that needed to be solved in Ancient Greek mythology. Remember the Sphinx and Oedipus? Although she was trying to warn him of the dangers of the oracle, but he managed to successfully answer her riddle and win the keys to the kingdom of Thebes. But at what cost? Ask his mother.
So there you go. Use the power of subtext wisely and enrich your scripts.
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