Friday, March 18, 2011

Things Best Left Unsaid -- Writing Subtext

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, because one of the most difficult things to write about is subtext. One reason for this is that there are various meanings for the term. Some people say subtext to mean the overall theme of a story. This is not what I mean.

I am talking about all the things within a scene that are not being said between characters, but are really what the scene is about. Subtext can be very powerful emotionally and will engage your audience—and it is something that is pretty much always missing from the work of beginning writers. In amateurish works, characters always say just what they mean and mostly the scenes lie flat.

Why does subtext work? Because it gives the reader/viewer something to do. They are actively putting pieces together and seeing underneath appearances. When subtext is well constructed, it doesn’t look like writing at all.

But how do you write subtext? How do you write the unspoken? There is no right answer for this, but there are a few tricks.

The most familiar form of subtext is sarcasm—people saying one thing while meaning to communicate the opposite meaning: “Nice tie.” This is probably the most basic form, and not very sophisticated, but there are others.

There is a film called Tales of Manhattan where we follow a topcoat from one owner to the next, telling a story for each owner. It is really a series of shorts, and some segments are better than others. In one of the segments, a man who is an avid hunter takes a dashing young man into his trophy room to show off his prized hunting gun.

He shows the gun and they talk about it. The hunter talks about what a good, accurate gun it is and all of the great hunting he’s done with it. The scene could be mundane and boring, but it isn’t. It’s tense. When I show this clip in my classes the room is quiet and all eyes are riveted. The scene is all subtext.

This scene works because of the set-up. It has been established earlier that the hunter’s wife is having an affair with the young man. The woman also warns the young man that her husband has been drinking, and that he’s a little crazy when he drinks.

It is after this set-up that the drunken hunter takes the young man into his trophy room of mounted animal heads and shows off his gun, talks about its accuracy and how he likes to hunt. The whole scene is a threat.

Now, I have a writer friend who says this is not subtext because since one character has a gun, the scene could only be about one guy talking about killing the other. But you could take the same dialogue and make it an unwanted sexual advance, for instance.

I use this scene in classes because it is easily understood and can make it so that people learn to recognize what subtext looks and feels like.

There is another type of subtext that is harder to spot. Writer and director Robert Benton is a master of subtext. The things he doesn’t write are beautiful. He knows what not to say better than almost anyone.

In his film Places in the Heart a woman’s husband has been shot dead. She and her sister prepare the body for the funeral. The body is spread out on the very table where the family was earlier having dinner together.

As the woman and her sister prepare the body in silence, the woman begins to talk about all her life with her husband and ends with talking about a scar on his body that she had never seen before. She says she never knew about that scar.

The subtext is that they still had more living to do. That there were still things to learn about each other. It is beautifully simple and powerful. And it is subtext.

Another kind of subtext is to have characters talk about the opposite of what is going on in the scene. It has been pointed out by others that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, two characters who are obviously about to die, spend their time talking about the future.

In Of Mice and Men, one character has a speech he repeats about what he would do if he didn’t have to take care of the other one. It’s clear from his actions that he loves his friend, but that fact that he says the opposite makes the speech sweet without become saccharine. 

There is still another kind of subtext that is just the unexpressed emotion of a scene. I was once trying to explain to a playwright that the order of scene could make all of the difference. I said you could write a scene where a man is the life of a party. He smiles and jokes with everyone and he drinks to drunkenness. The more he drinks the funnier and friendlier he gets.

In the next scene he gets a letter telling him that his beloved son has died in the war.

In this order the first scene could get boring over time because really nothing is happening. It is a static scene and would get old quickly.

The scene where he gets the letter might have emotion because there is such a shift in tone from happiness to sadness. This is the order most writers would construct. But imagine the reverse: A man gets a letter that he beloved son has died. In the next scene he gets drunk and laughs and jokes. And drinks some more.

Now the audience feels the pain he is not expressing. They know he is drinking and joking because he is sad. Now the scene can last a while because it is layered. It could be agonizing to watch and at the same time riveting. The party scene has more depth, but only the order of scenes has changed. The writing itself is the same as before.

It can be hard mastering the constructing of subtext, but if one learns how to use it you can add a depth to your stories and scenes that will give them a professional sheen.


Adaddinsane said...


It's always nice when people see things the same way.

In that blog I reference "The Off Screen Movie" by Rossio and Elliott:

And today's verification word is "broph" - the sound a broom makes moving from carpet to lino.

Jon Magram said...

Hey Brian, great post. Subtext has always been one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp and this helps.

It seems like what you're saying is that subtext is entirely dependent on context. Unless the audience already has an understanding of who the characters are and what they are going through, subtext won't have an impact.

Would you say that's a correct simplification of your point?

Tara Maya said...

A timely reminder that not everything needs to be spelled out.

ERIK said...

William Goldman: "If there's no subtext, there's nothing happening."

I've had that phrase knocking around in my head day and night for two solid years now and it still isn't getting any easier.

Subtext is one of the hardest skills I've come up against in my dogged pursuit of the craft. Harder than anything else except probably theme/armature.

The theme & subtext: the smallest skills are as hard to master as the grandest.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jon,

I think all of storytelling is about context. Act one is all about providing context for what is to follow.

In Raider of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones sees the pit of snakes and says, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”, we have a context for that because we find out in act one that he hates snakes. Context is everything.

I think your simplification is a great way to start thinking about subtext. Over time and with practice you will have a more nuanced understanding. But that just takes time. It will not happen overnight. But it will happen.

Brian McD said...

Hello Tara,

I have found that “not spelling things out” can be a tricky why to think of things. It often makes writers unclear. Then later when people don’t 'get it' the writer can always say, “I don’t like to spill things out”. But in all honesty they may just be a poor communicator.

In fact, I think one should spell things out for the audience. You spell it out, but you let them read it for themselves. You make them think that what they are thinking is their idea.

Billy Wilder said, (by way of Ernst Lubitsch) “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”

The trick is to make sure you give them to plus two. You, as the storyteller, have to know what the answer is and you must give the audience everything they need to reach that answer without expressly giving it to them. It’s a balancing act.

Brian McD said...

Hey Erik,

Subtext is hard. It took me years of actively trying to learn it before I felt like I was okay at it. Directing helps because working with actors teaches you to see what underneath the spoken words. Much of what actors do is express the subtext.

Good actors will sometimes “play opposites”. Meaning that they might laugh in a sad scene or viscera. It can add real depth to a scene.

They even have exercises like “I do say, I don’t say” where they practice by reading the lines on the page. For instance the line might read: “Have a great trip”. So they would say: “I do say, have a nice trip.”

Then the actor says what the subtext for that might be by saying: “I don’t say, I love you”.

When you write characters it helps to know what people are really feeling and really thinking. You can do a version of “I do say, I don’t say” as you write.

This will help a lot. But really all you have to do is set in your mind that you want to be better at subtext and little by little you will get better. It will just be in your mind more when you write and you will make different choices.

Brian McD said...

Hey Adaddinsane,

Thanks for the comments and the links.

Anonymous said...


I really like your example of simply shifting the scenes around. Also, the "I do say, I don't say" is a great way of looking at it.

This is one of the best explanations of subtext that I've seen. And what you said about not spelling thigns out leading to poor communication...been there and done that. :)

Thank you!

Brian McD said...

Hey Elise,

Glad I could help give you another way to think about subtext. Thanks for letting me know.

imyjimmy said...

Another example of subtext is in It's a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey and Mary are by the phone listening to Hee Haw Sam.

After Sam makes his business pitch over the phone George Bailey grabs Mary and tells her he doesn't want to marry anybody, even though the girl he wants to marry is right in his arms.

That whole scene is amazing. I wonder if it was written out in the screenplay, or acted out by amazing actors, or both.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jimmy,

That is a really great example. In fact, I almost included it in the post.

It is really amazingly written scene. That whole film is perfectly written.

Good eye, Jimmy.

imyjimmy said...

The one thing I'm not sure on is how that scene might advance the armature, how does Capra get the subtext to do what he wants.

I do have one clue, which is George Bailey seems to get in a lot of trouble with his own words--he says things he regrets later: "I'll lasso the moon" or "I wanna build bridges a mile long, skyscrapers a mile high"

Of course he never gets to do those things. Now he says, "I don't wanna get married" But of course he gets married.

Right before that he says he doesn't want plastics and ground floors. He wants to do the things he wants to do.

Not sure how it helps the armature though.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jimmy,

Here’s that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life so that other people can see it:

As for how it advances the armature I have to let you struggle with that. I want you to learn to see that stuff.

I also didn’t mention sexual innuendo. There used to be a code in place that meant that filmmakers could not speak openly about sex – they had to talk around the subject in creative ways. That accounts for so much of the clever banter of the 30’s and the 40’s.

ERIK said...

That scene in It's a Wonderful Life is incredible.

In the spirit of favorite-izing, I guess I'd have to say my favorite piece of subtext is from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, when Etta Place decides that she's going to leave them (this is where I'd insert the URL if I could find one). The scene is entirely dependent on her earlier statement that she'll go to Bolivia with them and do whatever they ask her to do, except watch them die. Once she decides to leave again we know exactly what's about to happen, and Butch and Sundance's jokes and bravado suddenly have a completely different feeling to them.

I think this is exactly the "give them 2+2" that you've quoted Wilder & Lubitsch as saying.

I'll give the 'I do/don't say" exercise a go, next time I working on dialogue.

Thanks man!