Anyone want to Talk About SUBTEXT?

I work a lot on subtext with my own work and it's one of the main topics I cover in classes and reports.

A lot of people (including authors of the screenwriting manuals) seem to think it's just about subtext in dialogue. But, really, there needs to be subtext in all aspects of a script.

Think of how a single image can express meaning, speak to the theme of the story, make a strong emotional connection with the audience. In really powerful films, an image can articulate what a character cannot bring themselves to say. My favourite example is the mountain terrain in Brokeback Mountain which is made to express what Heath Ledger's Ennis cannot articulate.


But subtext in dialogue can be wonderfully powerful too. That seemingly trivial and banal conversation about French cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction is fraught with underlying meaning and foreshadowings - and some deep moral irony too.


I think for me, subtext has become more and more important in everything I write. Its subterranean power on the audience's emotions seems like a wonderfully secret force that's a lot of fun to play around with.


Anyone else has some thoughts of subtext?





  • Thank you Stacey for such a thoughtful post.


    Yes, as I said in the post I put up here the other day, it's amazing how fruitful it can be to simply watch and wait to let the characters show you what to write next. What to put in AND what to leave out.


    My son bought me the boxed set of MAD MEN for Christmas and I've been enjoying watching all the episodes again reminding me of how skilfully the subtext is woven into the stories.


    One great thing about subtext is that it's one of the most effective ways of avoiding over-telling, to respect the audience's intelligence to figure things out for themselves. MAD MEN is terrific at that.

  • If I wait long enough, I come to realize it's the subtext that is actually moving the action. The characters are just waiting for me to do that waiting so that who they are can shine through and show me what they should do next.


    I am constantly surprised (I don't know why, really) when I watch TV, network and bad movies, that one thing that pops out is exactly what is lacking, and that is subtext. There is no room for being beneath a very shallow surface of action. It is stifling.


    The scene you chose from Pulp Fiction, "the cheeseburger scene," I find is pretty amazing. The amount of tension there is as palpable as the cheeseburger!