I touched on the idea of subtext a few months back, but I realize I didn’t give any real suggestions or examples of ways to improve things in this area. So I wanted to revisit this and maybe make the post a bit more useful. Well, as useful as anything I post here is...
I don’t have cable, as I’ve mentioned here and a few other places. When everything went digital it was a big thing for my lovely lady and I because we suddenly had about two dozen more channels and access to a lot more programming. Granted, this is exactly why we didn’t want cable, but... well, I’ve become a big fan of Svengoolie.
One of our channels shows lots of old movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I happened to catch the opening of a little film called Chain Gang. It’s from 1950, written by the very prolific Howard Green. That date’s important because it’s the height of the Hays Code, a very restrictive set of guidelines that prohibited showing—or even discussing—a number of things on film. Sex, violence, language, pretty much anything that could be considered immoral by somebody. All the stuff Family Guy takes for granted today. Because of this, screenwriters of this era had to either write the blandest material possible or become masters of subtext.
Early in Chain Gang, two reporters—a man and a woman—are having lunch at a burger shack across from the courthouse. Since they’re from rival papers, they’re not actually talking to one another, they just keep asking rhetorical questions to the cook which are intended for each other. And the clever subtext of the very quick and witty conversation—or set of conversations--goes something like this...
Him: Well we can see where the trial’s going. Let’s blow this off and go back to my place for a few hours.
Her: I don’t think it’s so open and shut. And besides, I’ve got a job to do.
Him: I’ve got a job for you.
Her: And I’d be more than willing to do it for you if I didn’t have this one already.
Keep in mind, they weren’t saying any of this. They were asking the cook about the time, relationships, work, and numerous other unrelated topics. And after three or four minutes the cook asks “Look, are you two going to order or not?”
The male reporter looks at his counterpart in a happy, slightly naughty way and says “I’ll have a burger—hold the onions.”
The woman chuckles, shakes her head, and says, “Make that two burgers, Joe—and you can put onions on them.”
Any question who won that unspoken discussion?
Subtext is the art of the conversation beneath the one your characters are having out loud. It's the flipside of on-the-nose dialogue. That hidden meaning doesn’t have to be miles beneath the spoken one. It also doesn’t have to be rich and elaborate and layered with exquisite meaning. But in good dialogue, it’s almost always there.
Here’s a couple of suggestions for some methods that can bring your dialogue up to the level of an sixty year old movie...
The Reverse—One of the simplest ways to use subtext is for a character to declare the exact opposite of what they really mean. I’ve mentioned the show Keen Eddie a few times, where the two main characters would constantly yell “I hate you!” back and forth at each other. At one point or another, we’ve all probably been in the position of saying something along the lines of “It’s okay, I really didn’t want the promotion. It was too much work, anyway.”
A lot of times the reverse is just sarcasm, because sarcasm is all about subtext. Odds are all of us have made a suggestion where one of our friends has rolled their eyes and said “Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that.” There’s a bit at the start of Roxanne (a movie loaded with subtext) where Daryl Hannah’s titular character is locked outside of her house wearing... well, nothing, and has to sneak her way to the nearby fire station for help. When fire chief Charlie (Steve Martin) asks if she wants a coat or a blanket, she gives a nervous laugh and says “No, I really wanted to hang out nude in this bush in the freezing cold.”
The Friend— How many times have you read a story or seen a show where someone goes to the doctor and talks about the embarrassing problem “their friend” has. Or maybe my character knows a guy who got really confused by how to install that Space Marine videogame patch, and was wondering if you could explain it in simple terms he could tell this guy next time they hang out. This is another easy form of subtext, because I’m pushing all the emotions and thoughts onto another character altogether—even if it’s a nonexistent character.
The Blank—Kind of like the reverse method, the blank is a slightly trickier way of doing subtext. It’s when a character demonstrates their opinion on something by offering no opinion. Sometimes they do it by ignoring the topic, like when Yakko asks his brother Wakko’s opinion on Phoebe and Wakko instead wonders aloud how much the DJ gets paid at this club. Other times Wakko might just dance around it, saying he doesn’t know Phoebe that well or giving a very vague non-answer (“Well, how well can you really know anyone, right?”)
The Next Step—If you’ve ever read about someone ordering a double or triple drink before they break some bad news to their tense friend, you know this method. It’s when a character shows they’re one or two steps ahead. I’m not thinking about now, I’m thinking about fifteen minutes from now. Through their words or actions, the character’s saying “I know where this is going and I know how it’s going to end, even if no one else does.” If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you might recall that in the Eleventh Doctor’s premiere episode writer Stephen Moffat packed an incredible amount of subtext into the single word, “run.”
The Metaphor—All of us have been in a conversation where what we’re talking about is not what we’re really talking about. This method of using subtext is a huge part of flirting. If you ever watched Seinfeld, you probably remember the time George misread a woman’s invitation to come up for coffee at the end of their date, said goodnight, and drove happily away (and then spent days on the phone leaving messages explaining that he thought she was talking about coffee, not coffee, because he would’ve loved to have coffee with her). Eddie Izzard played with this one, too, and explained that “do you want to come up for coffee” is essentially the universal code for “sex is on!” You’ve probably seen this method used in organized crime stories, too. Characters in these tales will discuss “disposing of assets” and “making a definitive statement” or “preparing a welcome home party.” I bet just by tying these statements to crime, the implied subtext has sparked a predictable set of images in all of your minds.
And there’s five ways to create subtext.
It’s worth mentioning that all of these methods need a bit of skill and practice, because sometimes people yell “I hate you” because... well, they hate you (sorry). Every now and then we really do have a friend who needs help with something. And if the Minister of Burundi asks if you want coffee, well... don’t start unbuttoning your shirt.
The trick with subtext is making sure it’s clear what I really mean. So I can’t be so blunt that I’m not really hiding anything, but I also can’t be so subtle that people think my characters are just saying what they mean with no subtext at all. It’s a fine balancing act, and it’ll take a few tries to get it right.
Heck, I know this one guy who couldn’t pull off good subtext for years.
Next time, I’m thinking about doing a big piece on structure again, because I got a nice bit of praise recently for the last time I did it. But I might have something quick to say before that about crossing genre lines.
Until then, go write.