What is Subtext
Subtext is the message beneath the message. The meaning beneath the surface that, indirectly communicated, either amplifies, modifies, or contradicts the words that are spoken.
It can either be subtractive (where you remove explicit dialog to hint at meaning) or additive (where you add extra meaning to the text). The aim is to convey meaning indirectly and deeply.
Subtext can be tricky to pull off convincingly so I’ve put together five suggestions, exercises really, that can help us get a sense of how subtext works. I’ve also thrown in examples of a couple of exchanges without and then with the use of subtext to illustrate some of these ideas.
Create two characters and put them in dialog together.
1. Now, have them discuss a topic that they both want to discuss but neither of them can bring themselves to refer to directly – perhaps they are prisoners and it is their impending execution that they will not refer to directly, perhaps they are children and are avoiding mentioning mum and dad’s impending divorce, perhaps they are a married couple who are discussing funeral arrangements without bringing up the topic of the cancer that one or the other of them has been diagnosed with. You get the picture.
2. Now, take the situation and rewrite it. This time have one of the characters be desirous of a direct conversation while the other avoids it.
3. Now, rewrite it and have one character hinting at what they truly want to say, while the other remains clueless (accidentally or deliberately so).
4. Now, rewrite the situation again with both characters in overt denial.
5. Now, take the scene and add more layers of meaning to it. Modify the dialog so that various/multiple character traits, beliefs, and opinions are brought into prominence. Add meaning to the lines rather than hint at the meaning. For example, bring a character’s pride or short-temper or fear into sharp relief. Emphasise the character’s intelligence, or ignorance, or humor. Put what they value or believe center-stage.
Here’s a scene that has no subtext. It’s about an elderly couple. George has cancer and sounds noticeably sick, but is still able to get around. Martha is his wife.
SCENE 1 – AT THE MAILBOX
GEORGE: Hiya , Sam. Nice day to be delivering the post. Is that letter for me?
POSTMAN: Hi George. Sure it is. Here. On a day like this it makes a man feel good to be alive. Sun, a fresh breeze and… Great Scott, George! Are you okay?
GEORGE: I’m fine.
POSTMAN: But George, you look so sick.
GEORGE: Yes, I’m sick but I don’t want to talk about it. The cancer’s my business, not yours.
POSTMAN: Okay George. I’m sorry things aren’t going so well.
GEORGE: Yeah, me too. Enjoy your day, Sam.
SCENE 2 – IN THE KITCHEN
GEORGE: (CALLING OUT) Mail’s in. It’s that letter from the funeral parlour that I sent away for.
MARTHA: Thanks George. It’s just so horrible, but I guess we have to face it and make some preparations. Maude, from two doors down, got a good deal from them when Michael passed.
GEORGE: Yeah, she did, and the price is something we can manage. It’s better we prepare while we’ve got the time.
MARTHA: What are you planning on doing today? I’d like to talk to you about the cancer, George, if you can manage it. This is tough on both of us, and I want to be able to help you.
GEORGE: I can’t deal with that right now Martha. I want to spend some time in the garden. I’m afraid we may not get another spring out of those begonias and it makes me feel my own mortality even more keenly. If I can just bring them back to health, well, that’d be something.
As a script it’s not completely awful (well, maybe it is a little). It’s a typically pedestrian scene. Nothing is hidden or hinted at. The audience can’t miss what is going on, and, frankly, it’s rather dull as a result.
All the thought and feeling broadcast so ham-fistedly in the above script can be communicated just as effectively, and with a good deal more interest, as subtext.
SCENE 1 – AT THE MAILBOX
GEORGE: Hiya, Sam. Nice day to be delivering the post. Is that letter for me?
POSTMAN: Sure George. Here it is. A day like this makes a man feel glad to be alive. Sun, a fresh breeze and… Great Scott, George! Are you okay?
GEORGE: I’m fine.
POSTMAN: But George, you look…
GEORGE: I’m alright, I said.
GEORGE: Damn it, Sam. Don’t you have a job to do?
POSTMAN: Okay George. Sorry. Have a better day.
SOUND: BICYCLE DEPARTS – FADE OUT.
GEORGE: (SADLY) Yeah. Thanks, Sam.
SCENE 2 – IN THE KITCHEN
GEORGE: (CALLING OUT) Martha, the mail’s in. It’s that letter from the funeral parlour.
MARTHA: That’s great George. There’s nothing like being prepared for the future. You know, Maude from two doors down, got a good deal on pre-paid funerals for herself and Michael?
GEORGE: Yeah, she did, and the price is something we can manage. They reserved ‘emselves those two spots on the side of the hill, overlooking Summer’s Creek. Shady too. And they’ll get to be together when they pass.
MARTHA: You’re such a romantic, George. It’s better to make decisions while we’ve still got the capacity, you know, before things overtake us. (PAUSE) What are you planning on doing today, George? I’d like to talk to you about the oncologist’s report.
GEORGE: I want to spend some time in the garden. The begonias are looking poorly.
MARTHA: (PLEADING) George, I need to…
GEORGE: They probably won’t last the winter.
GEORGE: They look done-in. The roots look rotted and they’ve got a fungus. If I can get rid of the fungus, dig out the roots, and get ‘em back to health, they’ll still be around in the spring.
MARTHA: Please, George…
GEORGE: You know how they look. They’re gorgeous when they bloom. (PLEADING) Don’t you want to see that?
MARTHA: (GENTLY) Sure George, I want to see that.
In this second version, clunky as it is, the content at the heart of the scene is preserved but there is a lot more conflict and interest. The use of subtext makes the content far more engaging for the audience. It is clear that George’s disease, the preparations required by it, and the couple’s attempts to deal with it are still at the heart of the exchange. But here, the dialog pulls a lot of extra duty, revealing George’s frustration at being ill, his opposition to receiving sympathy, and his desire to achieve a symbolic victory over his disease by working in the garden. Martha, likewise, expresses sympathy, grief, and willingness to accommodate George’s need to deal with the garden in her side of the dialog. The closest they get to discussing the disease directly comes in Martha’s brief reference to the oncology report.
Are there other tips and tricks you’d like to share about building a subtext? Add them to the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.