Subtext is your story's secret sauce -- but how do you get better at writing it?
Subtext is a writing device wherein actions do, in fact, speak louder than words. Something is going on that is deeper than what we are seeing on screen. It brims with double meaning, innuendo, implication. And when used correctly, it can feel like a cinematic Bach string quartet – different voices, each with their own melodic line, all coming together for a full-bodied, emotionally resonant whole.
Not great at writing subtext? That's okay -- we've got some exercises you can do that will help you out. But before we get to that, let's take a quick look at what subtext looks like and what it does for your story.
Different Types of Subtext
Subtext comes in all shapes and sizes. In The Godfather, the uber-famous line, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” is a to-the-point example of verbal subtext. The Big Lebowski has its main characters urinating on each other’s property as physical subtext for their assertion of their manliness. And in No Country for Old Men, all the characters are facing retirement while Bill (Tommy Lee Jones) constantly ponders the old ways versus the new, representing the theme of aging and changing times.
It can even be found in a lack of words. In The Pianist, music remains a symbol of transcendence and escape. It’s how Wladyslaw (Adrien Brody) survives the horrors of the Holocaust; the way he retains his dignity. Ergo, when he plays with such passion and emotion, it is the MUSIC that holds the purpose and meaning of the scene. It’s the subtext indicating, thematically, that beauty perseveres over evil and chaos. Beauty eclipses all else.
How Subtext Adds to Your Story
Subtext can add texture to an otherwise flat or expository scene. It can be used to create tension, giving a scene greater impact. It allows us to think as opposed to merely being passive viewers. Because the essence of a scene – of a film – is that hazy area between action and feelings. In the well-known French toast scene from Kramer vs Kramer, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is desperately trying to keep his son in a nasty custody battle. He makes him French toast in an effort to prove he’s a fun, cool dad. But the further into the scene we go – the further into making the toast – the more the toast falls apart, as he falls apart as well – a clear metaphor for his life.
Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? DON’T. Because subtext is merely a skill, and not as difficult as you might think. Consider the following tips on how to hone that skill and build your subtext muscles:
Try to Find Subtext in Your Own Day-to-Day
Do you remember the time when, even though you really hated Janice, you didn’t want to alienate her because she could help you get a better job, or a better apartment, or a date with her brother? How did you handle this? What did you say? How did she react to what you were saying? Was she clueless? Confused? Was she passive-aggressive because she hated you as well? Did you get the date?! Or how about when you had a crush on someone?
You couldn’t flat out tell them, so you danced around the issue while making small talk about Janice. It was your body language, laughing at things that weren’t funny, blushing, etc., that showed how you really felt. (NOTE: Subtext can make for some great flirting. Just sayin’.)
Now, Do This With Your Character
Get into your character’s head. What is he hiding? Is she crumbling from stress? Does he have an agenda? A secret perhaps? Love, hate, anger, and desire can all be conveyed in subtext. This understanding will help you compose your character’s words and behavior with underlying subtext to push the plot and their inner arcs.
For example, in Sense and Sensibility, beautifully written by Emma Thompson, Edward (Hugh Grant) is in love with Elinor (Emma Thompson). Thinking she only wants to be friends, he’s pursued Lucy. Little does he know that Elinor loves him as well. So, in a brilliant, subtext-driven scene, Edward tells Elinor how much her friendship means to him. And in response, she says, “You will always have it.” The scene is riddled with restraint and unrequited love, and yet, on the surface, it’s merely two polite people having a polite conversation.
Write the Scene Then Put the Subtext – the Feelings – in the Margins
Literally. (Personally, I like to do this on a hard copy using the good ol’ pen and hand method.) You don’t have to transfer the feelings word-for-word into the scene, but knowing them will help imbue the scene with subtext. Try to inject the emotions from the margin via body language, facial expressions, delivery, and other clues beyond what is literally shown in your original scene. An on-screen example of writing out subtext is found in Annie Hall. As Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen) make small talk, subtitles detail their inner monologues – how they actually feel.
Write It All Out
Write a big, fat, overwritten, expository scene, with all the fixings: action, dialogue, feelings, intentions, and agendas. In other words, write the worst scene of your life! Then edit out the fat – pounds and pounds and pounds of it. And see what you can leave behind that will convey the information and point of your scene to your reader in its essence. Give that unprofessional, overwritten, and expository scene some nuance, authenticity, and zazz.
WATCH FILMS and READ SCRIPTS!!!
If you really want to learn how to write subtext, the number one, top of the list, most important, very best thing you can do is to watch and read, watch and read, watch and read. Look at what works, and how it is handled. Then read how it is put on the page. What is said vs. what isn’t said? What is the writer trying to tell us, and what is the writer leaving out? What is the essence of the scene – that that hazy area between action and feelings? Learn from the greats. There is no better teacher than film.
Films with Awesome Subtext
- Any Film Based on a Jane Austen Book
- Double Indemnity
- The Great Gatsby
- The Silence of the Lambs
- When Harry Met Sally
- Crazy, Stupid, Love
- The Graduate
- Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Preston Sturges Films
- Anything with Pee-wee Herman