How To Write Subtext
To most writers, creating subtext comes naturally. But if one has never dabbled in the art of fiction, it is very understandable to create characters that might come off as flat or one-dimensional. The truth is behind the dialogue. So more often than not, if the characters are missing that “je ne sais quoi” factor, the dialogue is most likely missing subtext. Subtext is orchestrating the multiple dramatic forces that are affecting the characters into the dialogue of the script. The audience needs to sense these forces in order to understand the depth and humanity of the character, in other words, to make your characters believable.
Adding subtext is a “wax on, wax off” kind of process. Depending on the kind of writer you are, you might have to subtract whole sections in order to make certain things more dramatic, or you might have to add a lot. But either way, the dialogue needs to be reworked in order to fit in these overarching factors that are crucial to the motivations of the characters and thus, the outcome of the film.
There are a lot of technique’s that create subtext, but here are some that we find particularly important:
This is when at least one of the characters is unaware of something (often something that is crucial to them achieving their goal) and there creates a tension that heightens the drama of the film. This is important because within that heightened drama is when your most important messages will reveal themselves and the audience will be captivated enough to realize them.
This can happen in many forms. An example of misdirection can be when a character changes the subject to talk about something else to cover up the previous discussion, or neglect a question that they don’t want to answer. This automatically alerts the audience to watch out for certain things; therefore they automatically know the weaknesses of the character.
Another form of misdirection could be in the cinematography/editing. A lot of movies, especially thrillers are shot in a way that factors in visual queues that the audience might not pick up or understand at first, but as the movie progresses, the layering of the dialogue will saturate these images with meaning, and slowly people start to realize the truths behind the characters or certain plot details. It is misdirecting in the sense that often these visual markers cut a scene and may disorient the audience a bit, but that disorientation could be an effect that the characters are feeling so depending on the film, this technique will either work beautifully or not at all.
It is important for each character to have a back story; a life beyond the screen that reveals who they really are. When the characters are implying previous things that didn’t happen on screen, it gives the story a more realistic touch because just as one cannot know everything there is to know in life, the audience realizes that they are not going to know everything there is to know about these characters or this movie in general. Therefore, their curiosity is ignited, giving the writer the artistic freedom to use that to their advantage.
Some of the most powerful films can be reduced to one line or symbol. American Beauty: the rose, Léon: The Professional: milk, Garden State: “the infinite abyss.” This becomes the major conceit of the film through the language of the dialogue and the editing of the shots. Through rhetorical techniques such as sarcasm and innuendo, things that are being completely unsaid are being very well stated through the interactions of the characters and when one uses those unsaid elements to culminate into the climax of the film, one simply cannot peel their eyes away.
Now that you have some tricks of the trade to hammer down into your script, you can use these questions developed by Penny Penniston from her article: Subtext Speaks: How To Write Effective Movie Script Dialogue to detect what and where to weave in the subtext.
Pick out some lines and ask yourself:
1. What is the context for this line? What is happening in the script at this moment?
2. Describe each force (both external and internal) acting on the character in this moment.
3. Which of those forces are strongest? Which are weakest?
4. How did the line of dialogue reflect the balance of those forces?
5. Are there any forces at work that were not reflected in the line? In the line of dialogue, did the author miss an opportunity to convey the full range of forces acting upon the character?