How to Write Subtext in a Screenplay
Art and Experience: How do you write subtext inside a screenplay? We take you through some essential tips.
Ever want to say something but not blurt it out? Your way around it was probably talking about something that mimicked the situation at hand without being too obvious about what was really going on.
That was you using subtext, you passive-aggressive lunatic.
In life, it’s good to say what you mean, but in screenwriting for film and television, you want to use subtext.
Today, we’re going to define subtext, examine its use in entertainment, and look at how it bolsters the themes of the story.
Okay, let’s go!
The Definition of ‘Subtext’
Subtext is the content of an idea or feeling that is not highlighted explicitly by the characters, but is implicit or becomes understood by the viewer as the story unfolds. It’s what people are really talking about when they’re actually speaking about something else.
When Subtext is Useful
Subtext keeps your dialogue from being too on the nose. On-the-nose dialogue is when characters just say exactly how they feel. That stuff gets boring and it shows a lack of depth. Remember in the opener when I shamed you for not saying what you mean? Well, characters are supposed to be a reflection of us.
Sure they have moments where they explode and say it all, but those moments only work if there’s subtext to the struggles and conversations we’ve seen them encounter during the production.
So, what lies beneath the character and their actions?
What do they really think and feel as they talk about something else?
Examples of Subtext in Film and Television
To get subtext into your movie and TV shows, you need to build a story that has depth.
What movie has more depth than The Godfather? And its most famous line, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” carries so much subtext that it’s wild.
See, that offer was for the guy’s life. And to emphasize it, a horse had to die. But none of that was said out loud. It was just an offer. The subtext was violence.
What about when the subtext is used in a meta way? When it’s aware or itself?
In Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent talk about Vincent being asked to take Mia Wallace out to dinner.
And Jule replies, “Wait, take her out?”
Here, Jules wants to know if Vincent is going to whack Mia or treat her like a lady.
So the subtext has to be clarified.
But Tarantino doesn’t always work meta.
In Crimson Tide, he did a polish on the script and wrote a speech about white horses and black horses. The speech exacerbates the tension between the white commander and the black officer trying to take over the submarine.
For that, I’ll steer you toward Ordinary People. Yes, I’m talking about the french toast scene.
In the movie, we know the parents are trying to get over the death of their beloved son, and the attempted suicide of the other. This bubbles to the surface over and over, stressing everyone out.
One morning the mom, played by Mary Tyler Moore, tries to reconnect with her son by making him french toast.
But her son says he’s not hungry and she grabs it and throws it right into the garbage disposal.
She’s mad because she put the effort into making something special for her son and he doesn’t appreciate it. But what she’s really feeling is that she’s bottled up every emotion and pain she’s felt since the accident and feels like the wrong son died.