Subtext is a clever way of concealing what you mean in information that would otherwise pass as ordinary to the not-so-keen observer.
It’s good to say things as they are in real life, but when it comes to screenwriting, hidden messages are the way to go and that’s basically what subtext is all about.
In other words, subtext can be defined as the film version of reading in between the lines, a meaning of dialogue, action or items that’s not straight out clear but rather implied.
Subtext can be delivered using images through the use of juxtaposition, for example. Or with the use of memorable dialogue.
In the world of making movies, few have done it better than Orson Welles. One of the greatest examples of subtext is “rosebud.”
🎦🎦 Here is the original scene:
If you skipped to the end and didn’t watch the whole movie, you’d think “rosebud” was just a snow… 🛷
However, in the context of the whole movie, rosebud the sled represented a time in the protagonist’s life, when he was actually happy.
Hence, he kept repeating the word during the last days of life. He longed for the good old days.
That’s subtext (and excellent use of internal conflict) using a snow sled.
In the 20th century and at a time of extreme censoring, writers resorted to subtext to pass messages indirectly that the publisher may have problems with had it been communicated explicitly to the audience.
An excellent show-not-tell tool and a great way to get around on-the-nose dialogue, subtext enriches the screenplay with suspense and food for thought.
Imagine this: A mother and daughter drive to a police station, the latter determined to confess to a crime but would like to know if her mom will still love her afterward.
🎬🎬 If it plays out like:
🗨️ Daughter: Mama, I did something really bad and I’m not proud of it. I’m ready to face the consequences of my actions as long as I know I’ll never lose your love.
🗨️ Mother: You stole a car and almost ran into someone. You did something so bad, luckily, no one was hurt and I know you’re sorry about what you did. I will always love you no matter what!
The conversation doesn’t seem out of the ordinary and the scene works fine.
The interaction however feels like a matter-of-fact interaction and plays out like a robot.
It can be spruced up in an oblique and not-so-obvious manner as follows.
🗨️ Daughter: Mama, remember when I was little and I broke that cup you liked so much? I cried all day before you got home because I thought you’d hate me forever and never forgive me for it.
🗨️ Mother: I remember. I came home, saw you all worked up, held you in my arms, and I said it’s just a mug, and mommy will always love you.
🗨️ Daughter: Thanks, mom.
They hug tearfully and exit the vehicle and walk into the police station.
Both sequences convey the same meaning. But the first is very on-the-nose, which is something you should always avoid in all your screenplays.
To learn more, read my article on “how to avoid on-the-nose dialogue.”
Here’s another sequence (one of my all-time favorites) with a lot of subtext on something as simple as a coin toss:
The gas station clerk may be oblivious to the subtext of the coin toss, but we as the viewers could sense something bad would happen if he didn’t correctly guess “heads.”
Here’s the sequence on the actual screenplay:
When Chigurh tells the proprietor not to put the quarter in his pocket, the subtext is clear.
By calling heads, the Proprietor saved himself from a world of pain.
It’s also a strong testament to Chigurh’s character — he values life as much as a coin toss. He’d let you live or die on a whim.
That’s how you write a million dollar screenplay, using subtext (and character development).
If you haven’t seen it already (or read the script), check out No Country for Old Men.
Dialogue is perfect subtext playground, and it is the most common way to implement subtext.
With the right figurative execution, dialogue can make for powerful screenwriting and character development.
In film, good films anyway, characters rarely make known their inner desires or thoughts, instead, the writer slips in an analogy or metaphor that can be deciphered by the viewers for an in-depth meaning, like in the example above.
Characters can talk about picking apples and waiting for them to ripen when they are really talking about marriage and finding the right partner, and so on.
Character actions, especially body language, may also be used to convey subtext that’s usually rolled up into sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness.
The way someone acts or reacts gives viewers insight into the traits of the character, among other important details that may not be so straightforward to figure out.
It doesn’t have to be entirely complex; it can be something as simple as one character, sobbing and clearly in distress, telling a passerby curious about her condition, “I’m fine, nothing’s wrong.”
The character’s actions mean one thing when her words mean the other. Let’s consider another simple example:
🗨️ Robert: Have you seen my blue shirt?
🗨️ John: (With his back turned, and after suppressing an inaudible giggle). No, haven’t the slightest clue!
Now if John replies in the negative, with a straight face and no reaction giving anything away, the audience believes he doesn’t know anything about it.
However, his facial expression and reaction to the question, although oblivious to the one asking — yet visible to the viewers — hint to the audience that John may know something about the missing shirt.
Here’s another example that doesn’t involve the characters using any words.
An old woman, trembling with a cane and bags in hand, walks into a bus, and seated by the door is a man and his girlfriend.
Noticing the old woman, the girlfriend nods in her direction to alert her companion to the distressed elder. He looks to the other side and shrugs off the unspoken request.
The girlfriend nudges him in the knee and he lets out a sigh before standing up and beckoning the old woman towards the vacated seat.
If this scene had played out like a Q&A session then it wouldn’t have been as interesting as the interaction above.
Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, among other physical cues are subtext gold.
This scene can also pass a deeper message about the character’s personality and the dying state of chivalry in modern society.
Finally, here is an on-screen example of character actions, or in this case “non-action.”
Tywin Lannister might not be king in the Game of Thrones, but he’s certainly a man of power and knows how to show it.
For example, he often makes people wait before acknowledging their presence.
Through inaction, Tywin is not-so-subtly telling the other person that he alone controls this meeting – when it will begin, how it will unfold and how it will end.
Here is the analysis of this Tywin:
Through character actions (or in the case of Tywin, inaction), you can create subtext that enhances the viewer’s understanding of the plot and the characters of a screenplay.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America is a beloved superhero, iconic for the patriotic shield that he throws around and wields as a weapon.
His shield is a symbol of guardianship, and perhaps to the hero himself, the never-ending threat to his world.
In the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” his shield is shattered into pieces by the antagonist of the film, something that never happened once during his multiple movies leading up to this one.
The shield is a prop that passes subtext when it breaks, that this is the biggest fight of the hero’s life, and that his decades-long adventures may be coming to an end, as confirmed by what happens at the end of the movie.
A more popular example of powerful subtext props are the Starbucks ☕☕☕ in almost every scene of the 1999-hit film, Fight Club.
Most viewers missed it the first time, but it didn’t get past eagle-eyed fans, although that was after a whole lot of fast-forwarding, pausing, and rewinding.
The cups were a symbol of the overwhelming spread of consumerism, as confirmed by the film’s director and the company itself, which was also on the tongue in cheek dig at themselves.
Props are a vital part of filmmaking, yet in many instances, they are a finishing touch, an afterthought.
However, when used right, they can communicate deep messages with relevance in the fictional and even deeper topics that transcend into significance in the real world.
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