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What's subtext all about?

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This topic contains 4 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Leigh 1 year, 2 months ago.

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  • #9330

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    It just occurred to me that we don’t have any dedicated discussions about subtext. To get the ball rolling, I wanted to share some of my own thoughts on subtext (shamelessly copied from a conversation I had with some writer friends a while ago).

    . . .

    …if you can write dialogue with meaty subtext, your actors will love you for it. It gives them something to work with.

    Most people don’t have the self-awareness to articulate what they really think and feel. And that’s why we yell at the kid at the counter who makes our coffee wrong or the guy who steals our parking space, instead of admitting that we are afraid of growing older, of being alone, of rejection and humiliation, and doing something about it.

    A different way to look at it: a scene is rarely about one thing. Even in real life.

    Maybe a married couple is trying to reach a decision about where to go to dinner, but they are really negotiating who gets to make decisions, how much money they spend, whether tonight is just another meal out or a special occasion, whether they each recognize the household contributions of the other and each person’s fatigue levels. Maybe this is really a scene about whether they have sex tonight or not. Maybe this is a really a scene about whether they get divorced or not. Maybe this is really a scene about whether they have the ability to perceive and respond to each other’s unexpressed needs any more. Maybe one has bad news to break and doesn’t want to pollute their home with it. Maybe one is tired and doesn’t want to go out and feels the other is insensitive. Maybe one wants to rekindle their romance but is terrified of rejection.

    If characters have personalities, individual needs and wants, and there’s any kind of conflict in the scene, and especially if you give your characters separate internal and external goals, in a way it is hard to write a scene *without* subtext.

    . . .

    Are you comfortable with writing subtext? Do you do it consciously, unconsciously, or not at all?

    For anyone who has struggled with subtext in the past, does that discussion shed any light for you?

    #9360

    Holly Bell
    Participant

    I struggle with it and don’t consciously write it in.  I think I can identify it when I see it (with a 50% success rate), but writing it is different.  Below are a few examples I’ve noticed recently or I’ve heard are pretty good examples of subtext.  If anyone else can think of good examples, I’d like to see them.  And if anyone wants to break down the subtext as to why it works or doesn’t, I think that could be helpful (assuming what is below is actually subtext).

    CASABLANCA

    Annina meets Renault in the hallway as she leaves the gambling room

    RENAULT

    How’s lady luck treating you? Aw, too bad. You’ll find him over there.

    Annina sees Rick and goes to his table.

    ANNINA

    Monsieur Rick?

    RICK

    Yes?

    ANNINA

    Could I speak to you for just a moment, please?

    Rick looks at her.

    RICK

    How did you get in here? You’re under age.

    ANNINA

    I came with Captain Renault.

    RICK

    (cynically)

    I should have known.

    ANNINA

    My husband is with me, too.

    RICK

    He is? Well, Captain Renault’s getting broadminded. Sit down. Will you have a drink?

    Annina shakes her head.

    RICK

    No, of course not. Do you mind if I do?

    ANNINA

    No.

    Rick pours himself a drink

    ANNINA

    Monsieur Rick, what kind of man is Captain Renault?

    RICK

    Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so.

    ANNINA

    No, I mean, is he trustworthy? Is his word --

    RICK

    -- Now, just minute. Who told you to ask me?

    ANNINA

    He did. Captain Renault did.

    RICK

    I thought so. Where’s your husband?

    ANNINA

    At the roulette table, trying to win enough for our exit visa. Well of course, he’s losing.

    Rick looks at her closely.

    RICK

    How long have you been married?

    ANNINA

    Eight weeks. We come from Bulgaria. Oh, things are very bad there, Monsieur. A devil has the people by the throat. So, Jan and I, we, we do not want our children to grow up in such a country.

    RICK

    (wearily)

    So you decided to go to America.

    ANNINA

    Yes, but we have not much money, and traveling is so expensive and difficult. It was much more than we thought to get here. And then Captain Renault sees us and he is so kind. He wants to help us.

    RICK

    Yes, I’ll bet.

    ANNINA

    He tells me he can give us an exit visa, but we have no money.

    RICK

    Does he know that?

    ANNINA

    Oh, yes.

    RICK

    And he is still willing to give you a visa?

    ANNINA

    Yes, Monsieur.

    RICK

    And you want to know --

    ANNINA

    -- Will he keep his word?

    RICK

    He always has.

    There is a silence. Annina is very disturbed.

    ANNINA

    Oh, Monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the whole world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?

    Rick stares off into space.

    RICK

    Nobody ever loved me that much.

    ANNINA

    And he never knew, and the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart? That would be all right, wouldn’t it?

    RICK

    (harshly)

    You want my advice?

    ANNINA

    Oh, yes, please.

    RICK

    Go back to Bulgaria.

    ANNINA

    Oh, but if you knew what it means to us to leave Europe, to get to America! Oh, but if Jan should find out! He is such a boy. In many ways I am so much older than he is.

    RICK

    Yes, well, everbody in Casablana has problems. Yours may work out. You’ll excuse me.

    Rick abruptly rises.

    ANNINA

    (tonelessly)

    Thank you, Monsieur.

    He quickly goes off, leaving Annina alone at the table. She remains seated, too demoralized to move.

    SIDEWAYS

    MAYA

    Why are you so into Pinot? It’s like a thing with you.

    Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question. He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.

    MILES

    I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.

    Maya has found this answer revealing and moving.

    DOUBLE IDEMITY

    NEFF

    I wish you’d tell me what’s engraved on that anklet.

    PHYLLIS

    Just my name.

    NEFF

    For instance?

    PHYLLIS

    Phyllis

    NEFF

    Phyllis. I think I like that.

    PHYLLIS

    But you’re not sure?

    NEFF

    I’d have to drive it around the block a couple of times.

    PHYLLIS

    (standing up again)

    Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.

    NEFF

    Who?

    PHYLLIS

    My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?

    NEFF

    Sure, only I’m getting over it a little. If you know what I mean.

    PHYLLIS

    There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Fort-five miles an hour.

    NEFF

    How fast was I going, officer?

    PHYLLIS

    I’d say about ninety.

    NEFF

    Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.

    PHYLLIS

    Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.

    NEFF

    Suppose it doesn’t take.

    PHYLLIS

    Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.

    NEFF

    Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.

    PHYLLIS

    Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder

    NEFF

    That tears it.

    Neff takes his hat and briefcase.

    #9393

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    Great examples, Holly. Thank you. (And thanks for using Scrippets, too!)

    Rather than just look at scripts, I also recommend looking out for subtext in real life: watch for situations where you’re saying one thing but what your trying to achieve is different from the literal meaning of your words. If you’re neurotypical it shouldn’t take you long to find an example from your own life.

    #9409

    Shaula Evans
    Keymaster

    PS Here is a related post from Ken Levine on subtext vs the perils of on-the-nose dialogue:

    A rookie writing mistake

    #13893

    Leigh
    Participant

    Shaula said >>> “If you’re neurotypical it shouldn’t take you long to find an example from your own life.”

    I don’t know, Shaula, how far out on the limb do you want me to go?

    Between a boyfriend and a girlfriend. The setup is the BF can never say he’s sorry, too much pride. So after he spews his venom and then has time to reflect upon it, he asks his GF if they are staying together. But what he’s really needing to know if she’s forgiven him. But he can’t ask for forgiveness pointblank because his pride (perhaps rooted in insecurity) won’t allow it. I think people who struggle with pride and insecurity are an interesting study in subtext – it’s this weird mix of superiority and a deep need to be accepted for who they are, warts and all. But they can never show their real self because they fear rejection. So much of what they say and do is layered in subtext, and their needy self just leaks out all over relationships, intimate or otherwise.

    Another example. This one’s between two people just getting to know each other. At a bar, after having thrown back one shot too many shots, realizing she’s ran her mouth waaay too much, she says to the guy, “Yikes… I hope I have’t spilled too much of my heart here.” But what she’s really asking is do you still like me (find me attractive) after I spewed my crap on you. The guy’s response, he slams his drink back and tells her she needs a really good shrink more than she needs a good f*cking, then swaggers off. So yeah, she ran her mouth a wee bit too much – lol.

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