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One Greta Gerwig Quote Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Subtext

by Britton Perelman on November 17, 2021

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Unless you're writing subtext.

Screenplays are made up of sluglines, action paragraphs, and dialogue. Given how simple sluglines usually are, it’s safe to say that dialogue is at least 45% of any script, if not more. 

The things the characters say to one another often carry the entire narrative, so it’s critical that the dialogue be interlaid with meaning and theme. 

But — there’s always a but — you never want your characters to sound overly expository, cliché or trite, or foolish. After all, people in real life rarely say exactly what they mean. 

This is how subtext comes into play. 

Take a look at the following quote from writer/director Greta Gerwig… 

“People always use words to not say what they mean. They constantly use language to avoid saying the things that are true. In Lady Bird when her mom is yelling at her about the room, what she wants to say is ‘I’m scared.’ And she can’t say that. So she says, ‘Why do you never clean up your room?’”

That’s subtext

To put an official definition to it, subtext is the implied or metaphorical meaning or theme in a piece. 

When applied directly to dialogue, it’s all the hidden meaning, unsaid feelings, and thoughts that are too difficult to say aloud. It’s what’s in between the lines, so to speak. 

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a study in subtext. Any conversation between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, is laden with unspoken truths. 

The scene Gerwig references in her quote is a perfect example, as is the “give me a number” scene that takes place later in the film. 

Lady Bird gets herself expelled from school by sharing her thoughts at a pro-life assembly at her Catholic high school, and when Marion finds out, she’s furious. In the heat of their argument, Marion says, “Do you have any idea what it costs to raise you and how much you’re just throwing away every day?” 

Enraged, Lady Bird tells her mother to give her a number. “You give me a number for how much it cost to raise me. And I’m gonna get older and make a lot of money and write you a check for what I owe you so that I never have to speak to you again.” 

Marion responds, “Well I highly doubt that you will be able to get a job good enough to do that.”  

It’s a heartbreaking, emotional scene, full of subtext. 

The things Lady Bird and Marion say are meant to hurt each other because neither can say how she really feels. 

If they said exactly what they meant, it would’ve looked something like this… 

MARION

We don’t have a lot of money. I’m doing the best I can, but you don’t seem to appreciate any of it.

LADY BIRD

I just want you to acknowledge that my dreams and ambitions are bigger than this town we live in.  

MARION

Please don’t leave me. I don’t want to lose you.

But — like, I said, there’s always a but — if Lady Bird and Marion had said exactly what they meant in that scene, the ending of the movie wouldn’t have worked. It would’ve been a completely different story, a completely different journey for Lady Bird. 

That’s the impact of subtext. It adds layers of meaning to your story, hiding truths behind what characters say and what they mean.


Britton PerelmanBritton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.

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