Their kids are asleep when Evelyn Abbott slips barefoot behind her husband, Lee, tinkering at a workbench. In a blue dress and several months’ pregnant, she hugs him, and he turns, telling her she’s beautiful.
She’s wearing earbuds and tugs on his hand, wanting to dance. He shares the earbuds with her, and as Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” plays, he kisses her forehead. Both of them sway to the music while they grow teary-eyed and tremulous.
They can’t help but be fearful. Any expectant parent is. But the backdrop for their dance speaks of more than the usual prenatal concerns.
Security monitors beside them show images around the farm where Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Lee (John Krasinski) and their children live as best as they can in silence. Alien creatures have decimated the countryside, hunting their prey by sound.
Is this the best environment to raise another child? How can they possibly protect their baby? This delicate scene in A Quiet Place, which Krasinski also directed, brims with subtext without saying a word.
Subtext can feel maddeningly elusive. Dialogue that spells out exactly how our characters think and feel strikes us as false (unless it’s a grand emotional moment, such as, “I love you”). We strive to dig deeper, to find the emotion between the words, as Paul Perditto says. Yet that can seem exasperating, especially when you’re in the throes of a first or even a fifth draft.
But there are lots of ways to add subtext to your script—and strengthen your subtext skills—beyond focusing on dialogue. As long as you unearth the underlying emotion, you can express subtext through action, scene and character descriptions, character names, settings, even an entire scene or the theme of your whole screenplay.
A Quiet Place, co-written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and Krasinski, is a taut and clever film that finds suspense and scares in its premise and execution. Characters speak in whispers or sign language (the Abbots’ daughter is deaf). There’s little ambient noise in a scene beyond sounds such as leaves rustling or floorboards creaking. The film also primes us to focus on sound through devices such as Evelyn’s earbuds or her daughter’s hearing aids. Any unexpected sounds—a raccoon on the roof, or a character dropping something—seem so much louder, setting us on edge.
But the film’s subtext is the anxiety of parenting. Wanting and trying to protect your children from harm, and putting on a brave front when your kids are scared and look to you for guidance.
Subtext engages your audience on a deeper psychological level. In real life, subtext shades our words and actions, often during a crisis or a transition point, says Linda Seger in her book Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath. Think of starting a new job or losing one; starting a new relationship or ending one; or a death in the family. “[W]hen the stakes are high and everything might rely on our saying and doing the right thing, even though we’re not sure what the ‘right thing’ is,” Seger writes.
Subtext suggests desires, goals, and denials
Subtext suggests true desires, wants, goals—and denials, attitudes, and cover-ups, Seger writes. “The gestures and action tell the truth, even if the words lie.”
She notes how in 2004’s Sideways, Miles (Paul Giamatti) blames traffic on the fact that he’s late to pick up Jack (Thomas Haden Church), but there wasn’t any. In 1944’s To Have and Have Not, Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) infers that Slim (Lauren Bacall) has had a rough life after a scene where a man slaps her and she doesn’t blink.
One of my favorite scenes (below) with subtext in a Quentin Tarantino movie is when Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) invites Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) to join him for strudel in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Landa and his soldiers killed her family earlier in the film, and a lot of the scene’s tension stems from whether he’ll recognize her. She’s been living under the name Emmanuelle and operating a movie theater.
After an infatuated German soldier (Daniel Brühl) suggests using her cinema to screen a propaganda film for Adolf Hitler, Landa sizes up this young woman as part of what he calls “a formality.” He orders strudel for both of them but milk for her and espresso for himself, casting her as a child. He then apologizes for forgetting to order the cream topping. When she raises her fork, he holds up a hand. “Wait for the cream,” he says.
They sit in silence until the waiter returns. Afterward, she has one bite of the dessert while he wolfs down half between questions.
Satisfied with her answers, he offers her a cigarette. He studies her, musing about wanting to ask her something more, then smiles. “Must not have been important,” he says. He stubs out the cigarette like a candle in the cream and leaves. Only then does she crack, stifling sobs.
Landa’s genteel manner is as much a disguise as Shoshanna’s fake identity, except he hides how cold-blooded he is.
Let the audience in on a secret
For me, subtext works best when the audience is privy to some information that other characters aren’t. The teen romance Love, Simon layers subtext throughout its coming-out, coming-of-age story. Based on Becky Albertalli’s novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and co-written by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, the film shows Simon (Nick Robinson) strike up an online friendship with an anonymous pen pal from his high school, who, like him, hasn’t told anyone that he’s gay.
As Simon wonders whom this correspondent might be, gestures and actions take on deeper meaning. Is the pianist at play rehearsal flirting with him, or just jokingly making jazz hands? What about the athlete who adjusts Simon’s eyeglasses when he dresses up as musician John Lennon for Halloween? Meanwhile, Simon shifts in his seat at home when his dad (Josh Duhamel) makes comments like calling the latest TV Bachelor “so gay.”
February’s superhero film Black Panther, co-written by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, heightens subtext through action but also setting. Before taking the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka Black Panther, wants to invite his friend and former sweetheart, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), to the coronation. She’s been away on a spy mission.
“Don’t freeze,” warns Okoye (Danai Gurira), T’Challa’s general and bodyguard, before the future king prepares to drop in on Nakia.
“I never freeze,” he answers.
But sure enough, upon seeing Nakia again, T’Challa stands perfectly still before finally saying, “Hi.”
At another point, T’Challa’s adversary, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), visits his dead father, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), on the astral plane. T’Challa made a similar journey, depicted on the African savanna and surrounded by his ancestors.
By contrast, Killmonger’s visit occurs in his childhood apartment in Oakland, Calif., with no one around except him and his father. He and N’Jobu are Wakandan exiles; they can’t truly go home again.
Think beyond dialogue when adding subtext
Subtext is such a challenge, it’s best to write out your story with all those on-the-nose moments first so you know just what you want to convey. Then revise it with the characters’ emotions in mind—and think beyond dialogue. What can you say through action? Seger notes how in 1953’s Shane, the title character (Alan Ladd) always sits with his back to the wall, implying that he likes to see the door in case of trouble.
Rhythm and pacing also can enhance subtext, she says. Is a character trying to get something over with? Full of energy? Plodding?
Although an audience doesn’t see them, descriptions enrich subtext, too. Alvin Sargent’s script for Ordinary People, based on the novel by Judith Guest, says that matriarch Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) “prepares the table geometrically,” Seger writes. Beth likes things to be perfect—even after her beloved son dies.
Even character names can add a dash of subtext. Think about Marion Crane and how Norman Bates’s parlor is decorated with stuffed dead birds in 1960’s Psycho, Seger writes. Capt. Jack Sparrow flits in and out of trouble in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Holly Golightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a charmer determined to skip lightly through life.
Watch some of your favorite films, and see what subtext you can find not just in the memorable lines but actions, settings, and other ways. You might find that, like in A Quiet Place, silences say more than any dialogue can.