Subtext: The Magic Dust of Good Screenwriting

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Some script experts don’t even mention it. Others, aware of the importance of subtext in movies, mention it all the time. I’ve spent a significant part of my time as a writer and a director thinking about it. Let’s find out what it is and what it implies.

What is Subtext?

Like many powerful ideas, the answer is simple. Subtext is what a scene (in TV, a film, or a book) is really about.

The subtext is what holds the scene together, the reason the scene is in the script. Dialogue can be distracting. The trees may hide the forest from you.

The very respected Linda Seger made a complete book about it (Writing Subtext). The problem with her work is that, although subtext is an essential aspect of film writing, I do not think you can fill an entire book about it. Not every aspect of screenwriting can fill a book. An example of this: Dialogue is very important in movies, but I don’t think is worth a whole book. But who knows, maybe someone will do it. The great Robert McKee tried (Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen), but I don’t think he succeeded (just my opinion). Seger’s book on subtext makes a fine read, but it feels overstretched, she even includes, as subtext, the unconscious mind, which I don’t think has anything to do with subtext.

Do Not Make Characters Say What They Mean

I give you a brief scene:

JOHN: You know? I love you more than I can say.

MARY: That much?

JOHN: Pity you don’t feel the same.

MARY: True. I love you even more.

The scene sounds dull, isn’t it?

Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

It depends on the subtext.

It will be a dull scene if it lacks subtext. If what the characters say is exactly what they mean. So if John loves Mary dearly and Mary corresponds, we are in trouble. No subtext. If this is the case, those of you who voted for labeling it Dull Scene of the Year would be right. Really it would be worse than that, I doubt it would be filmed, and if it was, I doubt it would be edited in.


Now imagine that, really, John and Mary hate the guts of each other. We, the audience, know. Because of some story device, they need to convince each other that they love one another. THEN, USING THE EXACT SAME WORDS, two essential guests appear in the scene: Subtext and Conflict, two of the essential mechanisms of drama. Then the scene would be, not a love scene, but a hate scene USING THE SAME DIALOGUE. I’m quite convinced that now, this hate scene would make it into the movie.

Now, imagine the hate scene with no subtext. Example:

JOHN: You know? I hate you more than I can say.

MARY: That much?

JOHN: Pity you don’t feel the same.

MARY: True. I hate you even more.

What’s the problem here? Same as the first case, no subtext, characters just saying what they mean. Flat and boring. The scene will end, if filmed at all, on the cutting room floor (as they said in the old times).

Now, let’s turn it around. Now imagine that John and Mary in actual fact love each other deeply, but some events in the script are forcing them to say just the opposite. So the characters are saying the exact contrary of what they feel. Again, the same scene, same text, starts flowing because again there are Subtext and Conflict, again the actors have something to do, again drama is visiting us and we are so happy about it. WITH THE EXACT SAME DIALOGUE, A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SCENE APPEARS. As Mamet said in his well-known memo, EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC (check it in our post David Mamet’s Master Class Memo to the Writers of THE UNIT )

What’s the Character Really Doing in the Scene?

Another example: Some expert is giving a lecture that makes an impression on the audience. What’s the subtext here? Who knows, maybe there’s none, it’s just to show that he is good at it. Then the scene will be short. If it’s long, the scene will be no good. But maybe the effort of the expert towards brilliance has resulted from his need to impress someone specific in the audience. Then he may succeed or fail, but the point of the scene won’t be the actual lecture, but the dramatic need to impress someone. Subtext adds dramatic value.

Advantages of Subtext

What do you gain with subtext? First, something happens in the scene, drama is here. Second, the actor has material to chew on, has something to do. In a scene without subtext, an actor has nothing to do but sound natural. If you have an excellent actor, make him sweat! He or she will appreciate it. To really use an actor you need to give him something to do. And just being natural is not their goal in life. They’ll do it if they have to.

Actors Need Subtext

Actors are human vehicles who convey drama and conflict. So give them drama and conflict to convey. Do it through subtext. How many times have you seen a great actor being boring? Many. That happens when they have nothing to do, they are just there showing how the camera loves them and how natural they can be. Comes to mind an anecdote about the great actor Robert Mitchum. In a movie, a director asked him if he could be more interesting in a scene. He replied: “Then, interest me”.

You don’t want to have someone like Robert De Niro in a movie just to be convincing. He is a good example. He has made masterpieces and some terrible films too. As an actor he is a 10, he is so good that he can make a 5 character look like 7. But he can’t perform miracles. He’ll make the movie because he wants to buy a new house, but his character, if it’s a 3 out of 10, will be, at the most, a 5 that looks like De Niro. If the character he is playing has nothing to do, he will do a glorified, well-trimmed nothing for you. Is that what you really want?

More on Screenwriting? Check Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREEN WRITINGBest Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITINGHow TOY STORY 3 Was WrittenHow Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was WrittenHow Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT Was Written and For Screenwriters: Endings, amongst many other posts!

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