Character, Screenwriting, Structure


No Comments 15 August 2013

Every screenwriting manual, every screenwriting blog, every screenwriting class, will tell you that to write great screenplays you have to write great dialogue… and to do that you have to write dialogue with SUBTEXT.

Problem is most of them don’t tell you how to do it. Or even what, exactly, Subtext is.

Thanks a bunch guys.

But don’t worry.  We’re going to straighten that out for you right now.

So.  What is subtext? How and why does it happen in real life? And how do you write dialogue with subtext?

Most anybody can tell you that subtext is the meaning beneath the surface.  But if we’re going to use it as a tool, we need to get a lot more specific than that.

Subtext, for our purposes as screenwriters, is:

The friction between the literal meaning of a communication, and its underlying psychological or emotional significance.

Let’s break this down.

We start with a communication. Any communication. It may be words spoken, or a gesture, or even a physical object that stands as a sign or symbol communicating something.

This communication has a literal, surface meaning.  That’s the “text”.

But sometimes in life there’s something else going on that is more than meets the eye.  In addition to this literal, surface meaning, there may be an emotional resonance or a psychological intent that is at odds with it. That’s the “subtext”.

That’s your first key.  Subtext relies on two simultaneous but distinct interpretations of meaning.  For effective subtext to exist, there has to be two distinctly different meanings happening at the same time.  If there is no friction between the possible meanings, there is no subtext.

It’s this pop between possible meanings that makes subtext so appealing to your audience.

This pop even has a name. Psychologists call it a Gestalt Shift.  It’s the basis of a lot of visual puzzles you’re probably familiar with.
Like this one – the Necker Cube:

Look at the side marked ‘a’.  It’s at the front, right?
Now look at the side marked ‘b’.  It’s at the front too.  Wait a minute…

As you look at the cube it keeps popping between two possible interpretations.  They can’t both be true.  Side ‘a’ and side ‘b’ can’t both be at the front.

This is exactly what happens when your audience encounters subtext in your screenplay. Their mind pops between the two competing interpretations.

It’s like they’ve solved a tiny puzzle and their brain releases a burst of dopamine reward for their achievement – which makes them feel pleasure and sharpens their attention – with the result that they literally feel your story is pleasurable and your character is intriguing and dimensional.

This is why when Sally says to Harry, “I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.” when her emotional meaning is “I love you” and her psychological intent is “Yes, I want to be with you for the rest of my life too!”… then we have effective subtext.

But when John says to Mary, “I’m outta here” when his emotional meaning is “You’re boring me” and his psychological intention is “I’m no longer interested in having sex with you”…  we do NOT have effective subtext.

Even though there’s something unstated in John’s dialogue, there is no ‘pop’ between distinct meanings that cannot be simultaneously true. What we have in the John example is nuance (i.e. shades of meaning) which is also good in dialogue writing… but we do not have subtext.

Subtext keypoint #1:  If there is no friction between the possible meanings, there is no subtext.

A fun exercise that really highlights this is to find a scene with great subtext.
[Like this scene from The Departed]
And then rewrite it so that everything that was communicated in the subtext is now in the text.

Okay. Now we know what subtext is, we need to figure out how to use it.  The best way to do this is to understand how and why we use it in real life. To learn about this, read my next article: SUBTEXT DEMYSTIFIED:  Part 2

Love your work



Character, Genre, Movies, Screenwriting, Structure, Television

Five Ways Your Hero Won’t Get What They Want

No Comments 10 August 2013

Frank Daniel told us that the basis of a good story is:
“Somebody wants something badly and they’re having difficulty getting it”

Robert McKee reminded us that “Story happens in the Gap”… between the result a character expects from their actions, and the outcome that actually occurs.

This is one of the most basic components of storytelling.  Ignore this, and you’re sunk before you even start.

What it boils down to is that:

  1. Your character must have a motivated desire, an intention and an expectation. And…
  2. We, the audience, should be aligned and engaged with their efforts to satisfy them. And…
  3. The story should do everything possible to mess with and trip up those efforts.

Here’s a really rudimentary example:

John has had a crap day at work.                                                  (motivation)

He wants to erase it.                                                                           (desire)

So he decides to go to a bar and get hammered.                        (intention)

He’ll drink himself happy, unwind, maybe even pick up.            (expectation)


What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, we hope.  We screenwriters are a sadistic bunch.
Essentially there’s five ways John’s simple plan can get screwed.  These are the five kinds of obstacle that we have to work with as screenwriters.  They are:


What’s the difference?

An obstacle is exactly what it sounds like.  An object that bars your path.  A roadblock.  Your character’s intention gets stopped, stone cold.  Dead end.  For example, in Chinatown, Jake Gittes wants to interview Hollis Mulwray.  So he goes to the reservoir, where he finds him… being dragged dead from the water.  That’s an obstacle.  The hero is forced to make other plans.  Ever noticed how in action movies when the good guy has to get across town in a hurry to stop the bad guy blowing something up… there’s always a parade blocking the main road?  That’s an obstacle.

A complication doesn’t prevent your character from doing what they planned.  It forces them to juggle some competing interest at the same time.  They continue with their intention, but now have to manage an additional pressure – typically one that requires an approach diametrically opposed to the approach required to achieve their original intention.  A complication creates a dilemma for the hero.  In super hero movies have you ever noticed how when the hero is battling to the death with the evil super-villain, the heroine will choose that moment to fall off the side of a tall building and dangle by her fingertips calling for help…?  That’s a complication.   Often a complication will at first glance present as though it’s an obstacle. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine, when Grandpa dies on the way to Redondo Beach, at first it seems like an obstacle that will stop them in their tracks… but they decide to sneak him out of the hospital and continue with their plan… with Grandpa’s body in the trunk of the Kombi.  A complication… that is paid off delightfully when they are pulled over by the motorcycle cop.

A reversal turns your characters intention and / or their understanding of the situation around 180 degrees.  It doesn’t block their path, like a straight obstacle does, or load them up with other tricky considerations they have to juggle, like a complication does.  It suddenly and powerfully shows them they’ve been chopping down the wrong tree… and now they have to try to prop the damn tree up!  The classic example is the climax of Chinatown, when Jake Gittes goes to confront Evelyn Mulwray with the evidence that she murdered her husband, but when he harasses her for a confession she reveals that she has an incestuous relationship with her father, the real murderer, and has a daughter by him… who she has been trying to keep out of his incestuous grasp.  Gittes’ intention shifts 180 degrees – from lock Evelyn up to help Evelyn escape.  That’s a reversal.

NB:  The next two types of screw-up do their work by messing with how things play out after the hero has achieved their intention.  You won’t find them listed in any screenplay manual I’m aware of, as they are terms I’ve coined.

Overkill is excess success.  And it’s mostly (though not exclusively) used for comic effect.  It’s when your hero’s plan over delivers.  They follow through on their intention and they get what they expect… but just way too much of it.  And too much of a good thing is… well… not such a good thing.  For example, when Butch and Sundance decide to crack the safe on the money train with dynamite… and blow the whole thing to smithereens, raining money across the desert.  That’s overkill.  When Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction decides to snort some of Vincent’s drugs… and OD’s…  Overkill.  When a kid decides to liven up their party by announcing it on facebook… and it blows out into two thousand rioting drunken teenagers.  Yep.  Overkill.

Undercut is the last gasp twist – when your hero succeeds in achieving their intention, but success just doesn’t taste the way they thought it would.  In Kramer v’s Kramer, Joanna (Meryl Streep) wins the bitter custody battle, but is surprised to discover it doesn’t feel right… This is an undercut.  In Crazy, Stupid, Love when Cal finally succeeds in seducing a woman (Marissa Tomei’s unstable Kate) he realizes it doesn’t make him feel any better about himself, and bails.  Undercut.  (Later this will feed into a terrific complication where he’s trying to get back together with his wife… but dealing with Kate who has turned out to be one of his son’s teachers). You could argue that Zero Dark Thirty ends with this kind of twist…  after a passionate 12 year hunt, Maya succeeds in hunting down Bin Laden… then boards the transport plane alone and weeps…

So how could we apply each of these types of screw-up twist to our simple example story about John?  Check out the attached chart to see.

When you’re reading screenplays, try to spot which kind of screw-up twists are being used.  And when you’re designing your own stories, make sure you use a range and variety of them to keep your story turning.






Script Dojo is the screenwriting blog of Steve Vidler, screenwriter, script consultant and film-maker. It's where I come to wrestle with ideas about what makes great screenwriting. After more than 20 years in the business I still find it challenging and exciting every time I take on a new story idea. Sometimes I emerge victorious. Sometimes I get kicked in the face. All part of the fun. By sharing my thoughts here I hope to help you get kicked in face less often.

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