By Ronda Simmons
So, you’ve written your first draft, and it’s okay. It’s a compelling story, your plot is on point. You’ve paid attention to structure, character development, grammar, and spelling. But when you read it, you know there’s something off. The characters feel flat, the dialog is emotionally dull. Something is missing.
Telling a story is more than words. It can feel intangible.
It’s that ethereal quality that we are trying to pin down, and in our attempt, we can sink our story before we’ve even begun.
We can call it exposition. We can call it subtext. We can call it nuance.
In prose, it often falls under the information dump category. But as I’ve been delving into the screenplay format, I’ve discovered a new way of looking at it.
Because there isn’t any prose in screenwriting (yes, narration is one of the exceptions) writers often fall back on that age-old tool, dialogue. It can be every bit as dull.
You may be guilty of “on-the-nose” dialogue. This is dialogue either repeats information that we or the characters already know or communicates exactly what the characters are thinking.
On-the-nose dialogue is a surefire way to end up in the slush pile.
We need to nail down or maybe lighten up our skills in creating an idea.
Subtext, literally, is what is below the text. It is the deeper meaning behind the surface dialogue. The subtext is a close relative to the writing adage, “show, don’t tell,” but it’s more than that. The subtext is what your character’s actions are saying, often, but not always, the opposite of their spoken words.
Subtext should be in every writer’s wheelhouse. Readers like to figure stuff out! Give them hints, lead them astray, let them put the pieces together!
“I’m Fine. Everything is just FINE.”
You know when someone says they’re fine, they are definitely not okay? That is subtext. She says she’s fine, but underneath her tight lips and strained smile, a volcano of emotion is bubbling. You forgot her birthday, and she is furious.
Subtext is a Way into Your Character’s Psyche
In the movie Sideways, Miles is asked why he is obsessed with a specific type of wine, pinot noir. He replies, “It’s a hard grape to grow. Thin-skinned, temperamental. It ripens early. It’s not a survivor like a cabernet.”
The subtext is that the pinot grape is a metaphor for himself. He also is fussy and not very hearty. He identifies with this particular grape. He’s implying that just as the reward for cultivating a pinot grape is a great wine, so is developing a relationship with him, a difficult man.
Imagine how tedious that movie would have been if Miles pontificated about a tender and sensitive man. How he can only find true love with someone who respects and nourishes his gentle soul. Blah blah blah.
Subtext Reveals Motivation
Subtext can affect the power dynamics between characters.
A character can, seemingly, dominate a relationship with another character using the subtlety of connotation. Or communicate something emotional or vulnerable using veiled meaning as a way of protecting themselves.
Subtext can provide the audience critical characterization clues.
We’ve heard it before and we’ll hear it again. Trust your audience.