Subtext is one of those skills that separate talented writers from inexperienced writers with unconfirmed, nascent would-be-maybe talent. Why? Because if you have to ask, Houston, you are lacking a fundamental skill set when it comes to writing. All right, all right, now I’m being a little snobby. But really. Seriously. Subtext is any writer’s stock and trade. If you don’t know that – know it now.
Think about the root of the word – sub – and then text. Beneath the text. The meaning beneath the words. In screenwriting, we have several different kinds of writing: We have action line writing, which is where that pithy, almost haiku-like, voicey stuff goes – the way you describe things cinematically – and we have dialogue writing. Everything else is the way the story is organized. Notice I’ve left out the most fundamental ingredient – inventive imagination – but that can be inspired and emulated – not taught.
LLOYD (52) is an insurance adjuster cowboy with the knock-off Rolex to prove it. He moves his tie over the gravy stain on his polyester shirt and leans toward MARVELLE (35), way too pretty to be at this crummy convention:
LLOYD: Hey. Let me know if you didn’t get that last part. We could uh, go over it later if you want.
Marvelle shifts her attention from the SEA OF CONVENTIONEERS to Lloyd.
MARVELLE: I’d love to go over it later.
LLOYD: Oh yeah, sure. How about we meet in the bar in 10? I’ll sketch it all out. Go over the numbers. Put you ahead of the game.
MARVELLE: Let me go freshen up.
So who’s zoomin’ who here? There’s subtext in the dialogue, there’s subtext in the description of Lloyd – and yet all of it rises to the surface to create a situation which could either be funny or horrifying. The subtext in the action lines actually isn’t that subtextual: “knock off Rolex,” “gravy stain,” “polyester shirt” – this paints a picture of Lloyd, yes? Does Marvelle need to freshen up because she’s a two dollar hooker scamming conventioneers or because she truly likes Lloyd and she’s had a long day? Is this a love story about to play out? Or FATAL ATTRACTION?
In the same way that writing is rewriting, subtext is writing. That’s why it’s so hard to write and write well. Subtext is the feeling behind the words and the situation. And to get that out of your head and onto paper in a way that I can be entertained by – that’s just magic. If you are asking what subtext is – the answer is subtext is what writing is made of.
Again, the alternative is writing on-the-nose. It’s the difference between writing a manual and writing real prose. A manual leads me step by step – no imagination, no experience of revelation and discovery is possible. But good writing always includes subtext – it IS subtext. The reader has to piece together what’s happening.
Subtext exists in writing because it’s a lot like real life. Almost nothing in real life is exactly what it seems. Is that happy couple really happy? Was that a sincere comment? Did your boss really mean to put you on another account for your own good? But subtext also exists in writing because good writing is like life elevated to a higher, more thematic, more symbolic level.
Writers are both pointillists and realists. Portraiture artists and modern artists. We zoom in and out in our writing to create a satisfying web of a story that engages the reader on every level.
If all of this is beginning to sound pretentious or intimidating or confusing simply scroll back up to the mini-story of Lloyd and Marvelle. There’s subtext in every bit of that tiny sketch.
Look at your script pages – are you telling us exactly what’s going on very clearly? Or are you showing us through gestures, tones and – subtext?
Now, upon occasion, some high falutin’ writers who have gone from novel writing to screenwriting forget that in screenwriting there needs to be more clarity and less circular intellectualizing of things. Screenwriting is NOT the bastard stepchild of prose; it is at once much simpler and more complex. It’s nuanced but clear. It’s cinematic but internal. It is universal, it is personal.
While a novelist can take two pages to explore a character’s inner thoughts with nothing else driving the plot in that moment, a screenwriter must marry plot and character development in each scene.
So – what is subtext in screenwriting? Everything. It is the essence of the craft itself. Everything else is gravy.