The irony is that subtext seems like a small subject.
It’s not often addressed in screenwriting courses, where the focus is often on the fundamentals of craft. Subtext may be as subtle as adding a few words to a sentence or tweaking a moment in a scene, but its impact is immense. Subtext is the key to turning up the volume on your writing.
Subtext makes writing visceral. It can put the reader in the shoes of your characters, engaged and utterly absorbed in the moment. Without going too far into neuroscience, you can readily learn to imbue your description with the expressions, gestures, body language and behavior that actives the readers brain and, quite literally, makes us feel what your characters are experiencing. It is well worth mastering this skill that has the power to convince industry professionals that you are a writer we want to know and work with.
Shh: Subtext – Think Before Your Character Speaks
Dialogue is an important part of any script. Dialogue can advance the story and reveal character – hopefully both. But it is not the only way or the most powerful way to engage your reader and create and extraordinary reading experience.
Often, it is not what your characters say, but what they don’t say that has the most impact on readers – your first audience.
The unexpressed thought or feeling, the cut off sentence, can be more emotionally charged than eloquent dialogue. While lean dialogue with distinctive character voices is highly prized, think about real life. It’s not so easy to form articulate sentences and express complex emotions, much less have an eloquent monologue spill from our mouths. We struggle to say what we mean, and sometimes to avoid the truth.
When your characters spell out exactly what they are thinking and feeling in dialogue, the most frequent note you will get is the complaint, “OTN” which stands for On The Nose. It feels stiff and unnatural. It doesn’t reflect real life. It makes characters seem one-dimensional and leaves scenes feeling flat.
I’ve drawn on this example before, in a column called “Use Your Words,” but it is such a dynamic illustration that it's worth a second look.
Think of the familiar television medical drama scene: A doctor must tell the patient’s loved one that they died. Often, this is a scene shown without dialogue. Why?
First, we already know what happened from seeing the scene before. Putting the same information in dialogue would be repetitive.
Next, we know what the words are:
“I’m sorry, we did everything we could, but…”
Because we’ve seen this scene countless times. There really is no new way to do it.
That’s why we see this shot from a distance – often with a character, or the audience, watching through a pane of glass.
Finally, there is a larger reason. There is more impact without words than any dialogue can provide. It’s the emotional reaction of both the grieving person, along with the doctor’s effort to inhibit their own reaction, while they do truly care, that is gut wrenching. That comes across with the greatest impact through the actors’ reactions – their facial expression, gestures and body language. Because we cannot hear – we can only see – our focus is entirely on the subtext. That turns up the volume on our own visceral reaction.
We see the doctor take a deep breath, girding herself before entering the glassed in room.
We see her speak to the mother of the dead patient.
We see a moment where the mother’s brain is struggling to process. In shock, she's frozen, barely breathing. And then, her entire body collapses in grief.
We see her throw her arms around the doctor, sobbing.
We see the doctor, stiffly accepting the embrace, lightly patting the mother on the back to comfort her. But on their face, we see that they are torn between their own inner emotions – their human guilt and sorrow – and this part of their job as a doctor that they have been trained to do.
Dialogue would distract from the experience of the moment.
Subtext speaks louder than words.
Our own emotions about loss – a universal feeling – are activated. The scene is more impactful MOS – With Out Sound.
Look for opportunities in your script where saying less actually says more.
Shh: Subtext – Can You Cheat?
If I had a dollar for every time a writer said to me, “But I read a script by A Famous Writer and they…”
Yup. They surely did. But you are not yet A Famous Writer. You are trying to become A Famous Writer and to do that, you must first convince us that you have the potential to be A Famous Writer.
Yes, great writers cheat. And when they do, when they directly tell you the reader, something – sometimes referred to as “the intrusive writer’s voice” they do it for a damn good reason. They do it in the tone of the story. They do it deftly. They do it because it is expedient and essential.
When I came onboard as president of Debra Hill Productions, we were working on making the vintage TV classic, Sea Hunt as a film. The Lloyd Bridges character, now a handsome older man, is working salvage with a sexy young woman, essentially filling in the void of his estranged son. I would kill to have this draft, by Anthony Peckham, the writer of Invictus, on my computer. A cheat so perfect it was memorable. Essentially, when these two are introduced in the script, he wrote: “You will see many things between these characters, but you will never ever see a hint of sexual chemistry.” While utterly clear on the screen, on the page, it would have been left open to the reader’s interpretation. A perfect cheat, neat and tidy and necessary.
By all means, study Famous Writers, and learn from them. Mastering subtext is your opportunity to dissect and examine what is beneath the surface of human emotion before you become A Famous Writer.
Until then, you're not allowed to cheat.
Shh: Subtext – The Secret Superpower
Ultimately, it all comes back to geeky neuroscience – and how to take advantage of it in your writing. Which brings us back to the beginning – we crave the visceral experience. You can light up our brains with neural activity with the right choice of expressive and dynamic words.
Subtext has the power to add a layer of richness that breathes life into characters, helps your theme resonate, and makes your story compelling. Creating a visceral experience for the reader – your first audience – engages them and grabs their attention. And it sticks with them long after they've reached "Fade Out." It is the best way to get your story to the screen.
The industry is hungry for writers whose words can move us on the page. Whether it’s to make us laugh or cry, give us a scare or keep us on the edge of our seats, subtext is one of the key skills that can lead you to the ultimate compliment you can receive, being “A Writer With a Voice. Read more about how to develop A Writer’s Voice here. It's the secret to making a huge step forward toward getting representation.
I guarantee you that when executives read a script by a writer who has developed a voice – we will sit up and pay attention. Even if we don’t love your premise, like your plot or consider your genre our “cup of tea,” we will want to track what you are working on. We will want to read your next script. We will track your career to find the piece that is a fit for our business needs and a match for our interests and desires in story. The Secret: A writer with a voice gets recommended to agents and managers – the best way to get repped. Find out how it works here.
That is why mastering subtext is important.
Consider taking a polish pass on your script just to amp up the subtext. It will elevate your entire screenplay.
I hope I’ve gotten you thinking about subtext. In this and in my upcoming columns, I’ll be offering you a taste of the topics we cover in Screenwriting Elevated, a monthly online series of intimate and interactive sessions, with exclusive reading, unique tools, exercises and assignments plus one-on-one mentorship, all designed to help experienced writers develop their voice. I devote a full session to subtext: Secrets to Activating Emotions and Engaging Readers With Words.
Discover the details on Screenwriting Elevated here.