Character, Screenwriting, Structure

SUBTEXT DEMYSTIFIED: Part 1

0 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

Steve

 

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SCRIPTDOJO

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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