Subtext – Unspoken Communication
I’ve been in Europe working with a variety of television dramas and one recurring issue is the most effective use of subtext. If a scene is about what it is about—the writing is dangerously close to being boring. Great scenes are always about something deeper than what, on the surface, appears to be going on.
The subtext of a scene is the underlying emotion that changes or alters the meaning of the words spoken or the actions taken. Or it is what is “under the skin of a character.” Or it is what is under the surface of what a character says or does. Subtext is what is left unsaid, or what is actively concealed or what is not right out in the open. It is the part of the scene the audience must “fill in.”
For example: A mom finishes preparing dinner. A plate with chocolates sits on a nearby kitchen counter. As her very young son heads directly toward the chocolate, she says, “Tommy come here.” Why does his mom call to Tommy?
If you say “because she doesn’t want him to eat the chocolate before dinner,” you have understood the subtext in this simple scene. The dialog never directly says his mom doesn’t want him to eat the chocolate. You inferred that from the juxtaposition of the description of the scene and the dialogue.
Is that subtext? Mom is really telling Tommy to “come here.” There is no hidden or concealed meaning in her words. Subtext does not necessarily need to be “hidden” in the sense that the characters have some secret or unspoken agenda. Mom really does want Tommy to come here. Subtext is the additional meaning we infer from the words spoken.
Now let’s say the mom says, “Tommy come here. You know you can’t eat sweets before dinner. It is very bad for you. Come here and eat a nice nutritious meal first. You can have the chocolates later for dessert.”
This version of the scene adds much more information. It spells out exactly what is going on in much more detail than we need to understand the scene. It doesn’t allow the audience to fill in any spaces themselves. The scene is less interesting and is “too talky.” In writing, less is always more.
If you don’t allow the audience to be engaged in creating the scene they become bored. Think of a time when someone gave you more information than you needed to understand something—It felt dull and repetitious. Trust your audience to fill in the meaning of the scene.
The text is what is on the page. It is narrative description, action and dialogue. Subtext is what is not on the page. Subtext is the emotional meaning of the scene. People don’t say all they mean in a conversation. Sometimes, they don’t say what they mean at all.
In real life, we rarely speak exactly what is on our minds. We rarely ask for what we actually need. We rarely confront emotional issues head on. We talk around things and expect others infer what we mean or to fill in the gaps. Research has shown as much as 70% of communication is unspoken. Is that the case in your scripts? Or do your characters speak their minds too directly to be realistic or engaging?
For example: In real life, an argument about “taking out the garbage” is rarely about emptying out the kitchen wastebasket and carrying the contents to the outside bin.
In life, such an argument is probably about who is responsible for what, who respects (or doesn’t respect) whom, who is shirking households responsibilities and who is doing an unfair share, who is not paying enough attention to the home or the relationship or who is rebelling against another’s order or control. The scene appears to be about one thing but it is really about another.
Does every conversation have to have subtext? Is any communication direct? Doesn’t “no” sometime just mean “no”? Ask yourself what is the person actually refusing? Let’s say a woman offers a man a box of chocolates and the man says “no.” Why? What are the surrounding circumstances? What emotional exchange is really taking place? What does the character’s “no” mean?
Is he on a diet? Is he trying to maintain his discipline and refusing to give into temptation? Does she know this and is subtly trying to sabotage him? Or does she think he is fine as he is and he should just enjoy the treat offered? Or is he furious because he told her he is severely allergic to chocolate and he thinks she is being insensitive or cruel? Or does he think she is offering this box of chocolates with a hidden agenda or that she is trying obligate him in some way? If set up properly, all that emotional information is processed in connection with the simple word “no.”
We call this additional information “subtext” because the real communication isn’t on the surface of what is said. The real communication is just underneath the actual verbal exchange.
Let’s say two lovers are having a romantic Valentines Day dinner. One lover gives the other a beautiful box of chocolate and says, “I love you.” That is a very boring scene. Everything is spelled out and right on the surface.
Now let’s say the audience knows one lover is actually married to someone else (and the other lover doesn’t know this). Or let’s say the audience knows the box of chocolate is poisoned and one lover is actually plotting the murder of the other lover. Now the simple scene is much more interesting.
What if the lovers really do love each other? If this is the case they should express their love in a way that allows their feelings to be communicated through subtext. The lovers should be talking about something else but really saying “I love you.” They might discuss or compare wines and really be talking about the nature of their love for each other.
Actors do a much better job of communicating their emotions if they aren’t saddled with “on the nose” dialogue. Dialogue is “on the nose” if it communicates exactly what is on the surface and nothing more. Remember that real people always infer much more than what is actually spoken.
It feels more real and is more emotionally engaging if the audience is allowed to make the emotional connections between what a character says and what a character actually means or feels. Trust your actors and trust your audience to fill in the gaps. It will vastly improve your writing.