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SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Dialogue Subtext - Say It Without Saying It

Have you spoken out in your dialogue every intention and emotion? Don’t rob the characters of chances to find emotion in between the words. Paul Peditto examines some examples of dialogue subtext.

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The said and unsaid. Dialogue and subtext. Symbiotic. Train rails, side by side. The nature of every scene is what is said, and what is meant, even in silences. What is behind what the actors are playing...

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Have you spoken out in your dialogue every intention and emotion? Don’t rob the characters of chances to find emotion in between the words. Let’s look at some examples. First, a really dumb scene I wrote up to show exposition, the killer of subtext:


DON drives, his pregnant wife DEB, sits in the passenger seat, looking angrily at her husband.

DEB: What’s wrong with you? You’ve been grumpy all week.

DON: Maybe because everything that happened this week has done nothing but frustrate and irritate me.

DEB: Like what?

DON: I’m glad you asked. The first thing is that you’re a week past due date of having our kid. Then my crazy family calls to say that there is a family reunion in Milwaukee. You told my mother that we’d come and now I have to drive 100 miles to Milwaukee instead of relaxing on my day off.

DEB: Are you saying this is my fault? Don’t you remember what you told me? Three years ago to the day! You said you would never go to Milwaukee as long as you lived. You couldn’t face it ever since that episode with Uncle Rocky and the omelet.

DON: I told you about Uncle Rocky and the omelet?

DEB: Yes! But what you never knew was that the same thing happened to me with my Aunt Lucy in the perfume aisle at Marshall’s.

DON: You shopped for perfume at Marshall’s? DEB Yes. I had my own Milwaukee to deal with.

DON: I never knew.

DEB: Now you do.

DON: I need to stop. I’m craving a chili dog.

DEB: Chili dog? That reminds me of that time in Toledo...

Bye bye, Don and Deb. We get the point pretty fast...

Avoid backstory.

Avoid exposition.

Don’t kill subtext.

Leave something for the actors to play. Don’t have your characters speak everything out. When a character speaks about things that happened in the past, it puts the present scene on hold. It also puts the audience to sleep. Don’t do it.

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Here's an example of subtext from Leaving Las Vegas. Nick Cage's life has failed. He's gone to Vegas to drink himself to death. He meets a prostitute Sera and they make a connection. Thing is, Sera has a pimp named Yuri who shows up out of nowhere, and...


Yuri is tucking into a hearty breakfast. Sera plays with her food.

YURI: This is such a small apartment, Sera. I cannot stay here. We will find a big apartment. You know how much money I can bring you. I belong in... wealth and luxury.

He suddenly looks up from his food and smiles at her.

YURI: Why did you run away from me in Los Angeles?

Sera says nothing.

YURI: Because you are sly. Mmm? You knew all along that there was more money in Las Vegas. Didn’t you?

Sera nervously plays with her food.

YURI: You have nothing to fear from me. You know why? Because we belong together, Sera. Don’t we?

Sera forces a smile.

SERA: Yes.

A thousand thoughts through Sera’s mind, and the joy here is watching the emotions play out on her face while she says one word. With an actress like Elizabeth Shue, the camera will pick this up. Actors fill in the gap with their body language. What is said and what is meant.

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Ever see Far From Heaven? If not, here's a piece of the description from IMDB: “Cathy is the perfect 50s housewife, living the perfect 50s life: healthy kids, successful husband, social prominence. Then one night she surprises her husband Frank kissing another man, and her tidy world starts spinning out of control.”

The Julianne Moore character has the two-car garage, the perfect hedgerows, the American Dream. House, kids, husband…least she thinks she does, until the night Frank works late and she decides to surprises Frank at the office, bringing him his veal cutlet in a Tupperware container.

Voiceover & Subtext in The Handmaid’s Tale

It's Cathy that gets the surprise. Frank is having sex…with a man. Shocking!Not exactly the stuff of 50’s suburban Westchester housewife dreams. Thing is, the audience already guessed he was gay. As Hitchcock teaches, when the audience gets information that characters in the movie don’t, it creates suspense.

We suspected it because of this earlier scene which played out with zero dialogue...


ONSCREEN: We are in the middle of THREE FACES OF EVE. Raymond
Burr is questioning one of Joanne Woodward’s more timid personalities.

Frank is walking in from the rear of the theater. He stops
along the back wall and stands watching, muted in shadow like
Edward Hopper’s usherette.

ONSCREEN: Joanne Woodward is becoming agitated. She starts
switching into another personality.

A dark-haired man is getting up from his seat and walking in
the direction of the Gentleman’s Lounge. Frank notices him
pausing a moment at the foot of the small, carpeted stairway
just as a second man approaches. The dark-haired man spots
the second one and proceeds briskly down the stairs. The
second man follows, looking around nervously as he goes.
Frank stares darkly down the empty corridor.

We never actually see what goes on with the two men and neither does Frank, but hey, we’ve got a pretty good idea. This is the 50’s and repression is ripe. He follows them out of the theater and into a bar. Everything done with conspiratorial silence, very little being said, but a hellava lot going on without words….

So, she catches him in the act. The tidy Westport/Dick Van Dyke Show world that she knew is over. There are several great subtext scenes that follow, but the one I remember most is Cathy questioning Frank after his first psychiatric counseling session. In the 50’s i guess they thought you could shrink session away your gay.

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Frank watches TV from bed. Cathy sits at her vanity doing a hundred strokes, looking over at him while brushing.

CATHY: Frank?


CATHY: Did you see him?

He continues staring at the TV.

CATHY: So how was it? With Bowman? Did you feel –

FRANK: It’s fine.

CATHY(putting down the brush, coaxing)And there’s nothing more you care
to share with your very own adoring wife?

FRANK: Cathleen, what I discuss with this doctor. It’s private. That’s – part
of it. Alright? I’m sorry.

CATHY: I understand, dear. I do.

Cathy looks at him a moment before lifting up the brush and turning back to the mirror.

CATHY: Oh, and Frank, wait’ll you see the hors d’oeuvres! The caterers are doing such a marvelous job. I think you’re going to be very pleased this year, darling. I really do.

Cathy is losing it here. We’re watching her brushing her hair 100 times, and we can see down into Julianne Moore’s tortured reflection. Smiling, always smiling! Always putting up the good front, always the faithful wife! There’s a piece of her that knows she’s lost her life here, and she’s talking about hors d’oeuvres! Love it.

Dialogue as railroad tracks. Rail 1= what is said. Rail 2= what is behind, above, over, and around what is said. The meaning, the intention, the freaking point of why you’re in the scene in the first place. The subtext.

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Here’s one more, from Kalifornia. Brian and Carrie are a young arty couple travelling cross country. They decide to help pay for gas by sharing the ride out with Early (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). Two couples, one car, should be fine except Early is starting to develop some sexual feelings for Carrie and Early doesn’t give a shit, being just out of jail and a bad-ass. Contained thriller/road trip movie. How do we know he’s developing that feeling for Carrie? Try this scene...


Early walks toward the Lincoln. It is parked outside Brian and Carrie’s room. The front door is ajar, he pushes it open.

He sees Carrie’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, she’s in her underwear, pulling on her jeans.

Early watches her for a moment. There’s no mistaking what’s on his mind... as his eyes scan her body. Carrie pulls on her T-shirt, steps out of the bathroom and sees Early just outside the door.

EARLY: ...Need a hand with those bags?

CARRIE: No, thanks, I can manage.

From Writer to Director – Lights, Camera, Confidence

Looks flat on the page, doesn’t it? But look again… just two dialogue lines gives the actors room to fill in the emotional gap between the words. That is where subtext lies. “There is no mistaking what’s on his mind.” Damn right. We see this. Carrie sees this. It sets up the pay off at the end of the movie, where nasty complications ensue.

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Here’s a last scene that does lots with just two dialogue lines…

Carrie scans the landscape with her camera. She sees Adele walking around a small roadside graveyard. She is reading the epitaphs on the headstones. Carrie fires off a few shots. Then she sees Early, she can’t help but notice Early’s lean body. She zooms in on his muscles and prison tattoo. Click!!

Early completes the task. Together he and Brian begin putting everything back in the trunk. Suddenly, from behind, Adele jumps onto Early’s back, surprising him. He gives her a “horsey ride” around the Lincoln.

ON CARRIE, she notices Early’s wallet on the ground.

ON EARLY AND ADELE, she’s riding him, covering his eyes playfully.

ON CARRIE, she picks up the wallet.

BENEATH THE LINCOLN, Early’s feet galloping.

ON CARRIE, she opens the wallet to find two one dollar bills inside.

WITH EARLY AND ADELE, as they come around the side of the car and to a stop in front of Carrie. She holds up his wallet... watches his eyes.

CARRIE: You dropped this.

ADELE: Early Grayce if this ain’t your lucky day.

She hands the wallet back to him. Something between them goes unspoken.

Information. Who has the information, audience or character? What happens in this scene? What does it accomplish?

She can’t help but notice Early’s lean body. Set up the physical attraction between her and Early.

She zooms in on his muscles and prison tattoo. Early’s been in prison. She didn’t know that ‘til now. Neither did we.

She opens the wallet to find two one-dollar bills inside. Early will have to pay for gas. She (and we) see he has only two dollars. He will get the money by killing a man. We will see that (she won’t), though she’ll be amazed when he pays for the gas in the next scene. Lastly…

She hands the wallet back to him. Something between them goes unspoken.

This is one of many scenes where something goes unspoken between them. The sexual attraction, the danger of bad boy Early is here. Set up and pay off, like a mathematical equation.

Saying it without saying it.

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