Table of Contents
- Writing Subtext: What is Subtext?
- Different Forms of Subtext
- 1. Thematic Subtext
- 2. Subtext In Dialogue
- 3. Subtext in Imagery
- 4. Subtext in Actions
- How to Execute Subtext in Your Screenplay
- Subtext Exercises
- To Conclude: What to Remember About Writing Subtext
Writing Subtext: What is Subtext?
In its simplest terms, subtext is what lies beneath. Writing subtext in a screenplay is all about conveying the underlying opinions, meaning, themes and metaphors sitting underneath everything within your screenplay.
This is done to enhance and strengthen the depth of a story and give it an essential dramatic purpose. Drama is so often about what lies in between what people say and do or the message behind the story you are trying to tell.
If it is done effectively, then subtext is inherent and the audience doesn’t even have to think about it. This is the key to writing subtext, layering your script with meaning but not doing it heavily enough that your audience notices you doing it.
That moment where dramatic storytelling conveys something to you without explicitly saying it and you get it – this can be one of the most satisfying things about watching films and TV.
Subtext is most often thought of in terms of dialogue. Great dialogue is typically dialogue that conveys more than the sum of its parts. What is being said is only half the story of what is meant by the characters saying it.
However, there are many different ways to write subtext in screenwriting. Let’s look at some of the different forms subtext can take, with some standout examples to demonstrate.
Different Forms of Subtext
Subtext can come in a range of different ways within a screenplay. These can be primarily boiled down to:
- Thematic Subtext.
- Dialogue subtext.
- Subtext In Imagery.
- Subtext in Actions.
Let’s examine each in detail by using examples of subtext in action within films and TV.
1. Thematic Subtext
The Truman Show
The subtext of The Truman Show is found in its premise and narrative.
- Truman has been artificially controlled his whole life for the purpose of a TV show.
- He tries to find freedom after figuring out that his life and town isn’t real.
- Truman is the centre of a world in which everyone is acting out the lives and world around him.
The too good to be true style town that Truman’s life takes place in is a clear reference to small-town America. It’s a great example of thematic subtext in action.
- The constructed nature of Truman’s world hints at the constructed, somewhat artificial nature of the idea of small-town America.
- Everything might seem idyllic. But there is something darker at the core of what makes it tick.
- The premise taps into feelings and fears most can relate to – is there a larger force controlling our lives? Are we the main character in our lives?
This thematic subtext is presented in the very premise of the story, the way in which it plays out (particularly apparent in the first act) and in the motivations of the characters, notably the TV show’s creator, Christof.
Christof: “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.”
Writing subtext is about pitching a concept and following it through. The Truman Show is a great example of a film that contains subtext in its very idea.
From the start, it’s clear that this story is about more than just the character of Truman, it’s a metaphor for life and society. This concept is pitched in the premise and explored in the narrative – a classic example of a pitch and follow-through that runs through the script’s entirety smoothly.
Mulholland Drive is one of David Lynch‘s most abstract and opaque films. And behind the dream-like cinematography, disorientating narrative and surreal characters, there is a deeply resonant thematic subtext.
Mulholland Drive is an analogy and critique of stardom and Hollywood. Surrounding Betty, the elusive first half of the film replicates a dream, and that’s exactly what it is.
- We come to understand Betty’s aspirations as an actress and to the ‘Hollywood Dream’.
- However, the narrative juxtaposes this in the second half, showing Betty didn’t make it as a big star.
- Scenes throughout the film critique Hollywood and the dark underbelly beneath its glossy veneer. Betty’s reality at the end of the film is an embodiment of these problems.
Lynch intelligently uses a surrealist tragic story to represent the subtext of Hollywood as an industry selling people dreams. Dream sequences themselves make up a key part of the film.
Writing subtext through dream sequences and an elusive tone is a great way to keep the audience thinking about what you are trying to say. Dreams are, after all, made of subtext. They’re our brains processing the surface details of our everyday lives, hopes, fears and aspirations.
The triptych structure of Moonlight presents a complex subtext. There are three different chapters of Chiron’s life – his childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Chiron struggles to find his own path but seeks guidance from Juan, who leaves a lasting impression on him.
- The thematic subtext of Moonlight is buried in its narrative structure.
- Specifically, it surrounds the difficult reality of a young man trying to navigate his sexuality in a hyper-masculine society. It also comments on what influences a child growing up.
- The three chapters are the ‘core’ of Chiron’s transition into adulthood. They represent the three vital stages of life in terms of ‘coming of age’.
Using narrative structure when writing subtext is very useful. In this sense, it will read much like a book, showing the stages and development of your message.
There is subtext inherent in the story’s very structure and with a different structure, the subtext would be different or found elsewhere.
2. Subtext In Dialogue
Throughout Parasite, there is an abundance of dialogue that shows the class divide between the two main families. This is the film’s general subtext and message, the highlighting of the gulf within the class structure in society.
This is particularly on show within dialogue around the “smell” of Mr Kim as described by his wealthy boss to his wife.
“It’s hard to describe. But you sometimes smell it on the subway.”
“It’s been ages since I rode a subway.”
“People who ride the subway have a special smell.”
What the wealthy couple here are talking about is not just smell in literal terms. It represents much more.
- They associate the smell of Mr Kim with the subway, which they indicate they haven’t been on in a long time.
- Their wealth has taken them away from public transport and into an attitude where even smell can be an indicator of class.
- Mr Kim hears this conversation, hiding underneath the sofa the couple are sat on. And it haunts him throughout the film, ultimately providing vital in the story’s conclusion.
- Mr Kim himself is not taking the dialogue literally. He’s not as concerned by his actual smell, although that obviously plays some part. But it’s more that the talk of his smell is an assertion of the wealthy couple’s status over him, a reminder of his place in society.
- It’s a deeply hurtful comment because of how disparaging it is not just of him but of what the couple take his smell to mean.
Dialogue is a great way to get across defining themes when writing subtext. Make the dialogue at hand mean more than what it means in literal terms in order to present what you’re saying without actually saying it.
The Social Network
The Social Network is renowned for its great dialogue. But it’s not just the wit and pace of this dialogue that is great but the subtext beneath it.
The above scene is a particularly good example of subtext within dialogue, revealing some of the film’s key conflicts in linguistic subtleties.
For example, in a scene between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, at various points, Mark is subtly keen to distinguish that a lawyer’s letter was addressed to him and not the both of them.
“The letter says we could face legal action.”
“No, it says I could face legal action.”
Eduardo doesn’t even notice this and the audience would be forgiven for not noticing either. But this conflict is a foreshadowing of the key conflict of the film, the one which will define the third act – Mark ousting Eduardo from the company.
- In this exchange, it’s clear just from the way Mark keeps saying “I” instead of “we” that he has a different view of the venture than Eduardo.
- Furthermore, the fact that Eduardo doesn’t even notice is revealing too.
- Eduardo will arguably eventually be undone by his lack of attention to this detail.
The subtlety of this dialogue shows how tiny details can convey elements of great importance to the overall story. These are small threads that will eventually unravel into something bigger.
3. Subtext in Imagery
Brokeback Mountain tells a heartbreaking story overall. And there is an excellent use of subtext through imagery to emphasise the narrative purpose.
- When Jack and Ennis begin their relationship, they are high in Brokeback Mountain, free to be who they are.
- However, when they are back where they live, they have to hide who they are from the repressive society around them.
The imagery of the vast mountain range represents freedom and acceptance. To be accepted by society, they have to hide from it. Meanwhile, the claustrophobic imagery when they are back in society shows the problems of its close-minded citizens.
When writing subtext use consistent imagery and settings to reflect the psychology of the characters. This a great way to ensure your subtext can be understood and felt in a smooth and naturalistic way.
The audience will barely notice the subtext in this regard. Instead, they’ll associate certain settings with certain feelings intrinsically.
Charles Kane’s famous last words, ‘Rosebud’ leave not just the audience but the characters in Citizen Kane confused. This is until it is revealed to us that the word was the name of the sled he was playing with when he was taken away from his home and his mother as a child.
Rosebud itself and the words uttered by Charles represent a subtext about the misconceptions of what money can do for you.
- Throughout the whole film, Charles tries to find love and happiness. He often tries to buy it but manages to always push everyone away.
- At the beginning of the film, Charles used the sled as a weapon to fight who was taking him away. This represents a barrier between his simple life at home and his new wealthy home in New York.
Rosebud symbolises the last time Charles was truly happy. Despite all the money, fame and success, home is where he wants to be in his last moments.
The message and subtext are clear: money doesn’t buy happiness. Charles Kane achieves extraordinary things in his life but a key moment from his childhood is what haunts him.
Imagery and motifs are very useful when writing subtext, especially in the form of objects, as they sometimes are the only thing your screenplay needs to portray a deeper meaning.
4. Subtext in Actions
Breaking Bad is a series in which subtext is palpable throughout. It’s a story in which an essential secret is kept. Therefore subtext makes up an important part of the narrative overall and contributes greatly to the tension that makes the series so compelling.
However, it’s not just this kind of subtext that runs through the series. Subtext in actions occur consistently throughout the series. A great example of this comes in Season One, Episode Four “Cancer Man“.
- Walt has seen an obnoxious stockbroker throughout the episode, wincing at his arrogance and entitlement.
- At the end of the episode, Walt sees the stockbroker at a gas station.
- Whilst the stockbroker is inside, Walt walks to his car and places a squeegee in the car battery, shorting it.
- The car explodes as Walt wakes away and gets back in his car, smiling.
This incident demonstrates Walt’s capacity for revenge and danger. At this point in the series, we’re only just starting to see his dark side develop. This moment of lashing out foreshadows how Walt will continue to develop, leaning into the dark side of his nature. This is only just the beginning.
Furthermore, the nature of the incident also proves revealing. Walt feels aggrieved by this stockbroker, even if he hasn’t actually done anything to him directly. The fact he wants to lash out at him reveals Walt’s latent frustration and impotence, which is slowly being remedied by his thirst for power.
This is a great example of subtext through an action. Nothing is said in this entire mini-arc. But Walt’s actions towards the stockbroker say a great deal about his character, the themes and the story going forward.
One of the tensest scenes in Inglorious Basterds comes as a result of some rich subtext through actions.
It occurs in a scene between Colonel Hans Landa and Shosanna.
- Shosanna is invited to lunch with a number of Nazi officers. Her heart sinks when Landa joins them.
- We know Shosanna’s history with Landa – he killed her family.
- What we’re not quite sure of is whether Landa knows exactly who Shosanna is or not. Shosanna is hiding her true identity under a pseudonym.
We get more of a clue however when they are alone and he orders apple strudel for them both.
- When the strudel arrives, Landa implores Shosanna to ‘wait for the cream’.
- The cream is paid particular attention to in the camerawork.
- Moreover, Landa eats the cream with gusto in front of Shosanna. He makes the most out of enjoying it.
The significance of the cream and the subtext it holds can be found in the fact that Shosanna’s family, who Landa executed, were dairy farmers.
- After he’s finished his strudel, Landa offers Shosanna a cigarette. He says to her “I did have something else I wanted to ask you…”.
- The tension peaks as he stares Shosanna down.
- However, it’s relieved as Landa follows up with “But right now, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is”.
Landa leaves with one last gesture, filled with possible subtext – stubbing out his cigarette in the luscious cream, the cream that bears so much symbolism for Shosanna’s family and true identity.
This is a great example of how subtext through action can make for fantastic tension. Landa is playing cat and mouse with Shosanna and through his actions, he makes her squirm, even if on the surface he is charming.
How to Execute Subtext in Your Screenplay
So how do you actually go about writing subtext in your screenplay? It might be satisfying to spot in retrospect but how do you put your first foot forward in terms of writing subtext into your screenplay?
It’s important to always have your eye on the wider purpose of the story you are seeking to tell.
- What is the ultimate meaning of your story?
- How does this manifest in the characters’ actions and dialogue?
- How does it manifest in the settings and imagery throughout?
The answers to these questions should be running through as much of your screenplay as possible. Every scene should be seeking to convey wider meaning, whether that’s in terms of plot, characterisation or themes.
It can be hard to keep focus on this larger goal and you will inevitably have to go back through your first drafts, editing certain scenes and interrogating what each moment is doing for the story as a whole.
There are, however, a number of good exercises and ways to imbue subtext in your screenplay from the outset…
Before setting your scenes, or screenplay as a whole, in stone, try and run through some of these writing exercises first. These will help in putting subtext into your screenplay in a naturalistic way.
1. For Thematic Subtext: Lay out the fundamental question and controlling idea of your story and interrogate how your structure or narrative seeks to answer this question.
- Is the form of your screenplay the right one to convey the message you want to?
- Is the tone and style of your screenplay doing something to get across the key message and themes?
2. For Dialogue: Try writing the scene without dialogue and try writing the scene with dialogue.
- Are you able to get across all that you want to without dialogue and just through visual language?
- What dialogue is essential and which could you lose?
3. For Imagery: Look at how the visuals of your script and story will manifest.
- Lean into the settings, the details and the visual look of how your scenes will play out.
- Write a document in which you describe your story’s context in detail.
- This won’t make it into your screenplay, apart from perhaps a handful of descriptive sentences.
- However, you will have created a connection between the potential visuals of your story and the story itself.
4. For Subtext in Actions: Write explicit meaning and then don’t let yourself fully convey it through dialogue.
- What exactly are you trying to get across in terms of character intention?
- Write this in the most explicit way possible, either in dialogue or in a prose document.
- Then, force yourself to convey this without actually having the characters reveal this intention explicitly.
- Consequently, you will force your characters to express themselves through actions, with the subtext of their intention lying beneath these actions.
To Conclude: What to Remember About Writing Subtext
The undefined can be much more powerful than the clearly defined, this is what subtext teaches us. It can come in a range of different ways but it’s foundational for good drama.
As outlined above, there are a number of different ways of writing subtext in a screenplay. However, the best screenplays will have a satisfying balance of all types of subtext. Think laterally and surprise your audience with how and where you place your subtext.
In writing subtext from the outset, truly interrogate the methods you are using to convey what you need to. Herein lies the route to subtext, finding another way to say what you need to without actually saying it.
Subtext is the deeper meaning lying beneath dialogue, actions or narrative choices. It’s what is being expressed underneath the surface.
Where one character says one thing but means another. Or a character might act in a certain way in order to represent how they feel without saying it.
Writing subtext is about layering your scenes, and screenplay in general, with deeper meaning. A great way to do this is to start off big and end up small. Start conveying what you want explicitly and gradually reduce this explicitness by conveying what you need in a tighter and tighter way.
There are four primary forms of subtext that can be identified: Thematic, dialogue, actions and imagery.
This article was written by Daisy Hirst and edited by IS Staff.
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