Screenwriting: Nail The Subtext

Oh, subtext, you’re a fickle wretch.  By definition, you must not be written or spoken. You’re invisible on the page.  As soon as you start to become too obvious, you cease to exist. Nonetheless, your absence is keenly felt.  A screenplay without subtext is all surface, no depth.  There’s little substance to the story, less resonance.

Subtext presents a major challenge to spec screenwriters, those hapless drudges who labor under the tightest of constraints. They aim to convey their story in the barest bones of action and dialogue, with nary an adverb or adjective in sight. Description must be succinct, speech must be snappy, tension must escalate.  And, while bowing to these restrictions, somehow subtext must also be conjured within the white space.  It’s a tough call.

Subtext is often what separates wannabes from professionals.  A screenplay with subtext has internal tensions roiling from the start and builds to a fever-pitch climax. Solid subtext not only assists narrative momentum, but also offers creative opportunities to every other artist who will work on bringing the screenplay to life, from the actors fleshing out characters via their contradictions, to the production designers settling on details of set and costume, to the cinematographer figuring out what to light and what to shade.

The audience enjoys subtext too. Just because a narrative plays out on screen, it shouldn’t be limited to surface images or meaning.  It’s much more satisfying to engage with layers of nuance, to peel back underlying tensions from scene to scene.  The best lines can be those left unspoken, what we believe a character is feeling in the moment, rather than the words which actually come out of her mouth.

Conclusions are best drawn, rather than delivered on a plate — and if everyone draws the same conclusion from your movie, what are they going to argue about in the bar afterwards?

Show, But Don’t

In 2015, there are few practical limits to what can be shown explicitly on screen, from sex acts to special effects.  Whether you want to include giant planet-eating robots or a drunken frat-house orgy in your storytelling you can go ahead, in glorious high definition detail  — as long as you have the budget.  Nonetheless, just because the technical capacity and lack of censorship is available, there’s no need to show everything. Mindless spectacle will always be a part of blockbuster moviemaking, but subtle subtextual suggestions are an integral part of film language, and are still, by necessity, beloved of other filmmakers, especially indie and genre.

Film narrative techniques as we know them today were developed under heavy technical and moral constraints.  Silent cinema relied heavily on subtext because there was no sound, no camera mobility, color, or film stock to shoot anything but day and day-for-night.  Filmmakers, far from being hidebound by what they couldn’t do or show, figured out ways to hint, imply, connote, stimulating the audience to fill the gaps between the flickering black-and-white. German Expressionist classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) or Secrets of A Soul (1926) rejected realism and embraced dream narratives, telling their story in symbols and subtext rather than in a literal fashion.  Although many of these films are lost to modern audiences, they helped shape the cinema that followed, and the language of cuts, representation, off-screen space, non-linear time, etc. underlying modern visual storytelling.

‘Correct Standards Of Life’

Across the Atlantic, the flagrant immorality (Sex! Drugs! Murder! Cover-ups!) exhibited by the Hollywood movie-making community was becoming a major source of concern for moral guardians.  Motion pictures depicted scantily clad jezebels conducting torrid affairs with violent, profanity-spouting gangsters in opium dens of iniquity — and the public lapped it up.  In 1922, after a series of scandals (Chaplin and underage girls, Fatty Arbuckle and the death of Virginia Rappe, the William Desmond Taylor murder), the industry responded to calls to clean up its act by forming the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), an internal watchdog that inserted moral clauses into actors’ contracts and maintained a blacklist of offenders.

The MPPDA was headed by canny politician wheeler-dealer Will H. Hays, staunch Republican, Presbyterian and former Postmaster General. He responded to calls for censorship at a state level and from national organizations such as the Catholic Legion of Decency. By 1930, opposition to transgressions projected onto the silver screen solidified into the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code.  For the first four years compliance was voluntary. In 1934 it became mandatory to submit screenplays to the censors.

The creators of the Hays Code believed movies “may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking”. Their Code revolved around protecting the innocent (or “unsophisticated”) from witnessing any words or behavior that might inspire them to imitate a bad example, and would instead guide towards a loftier path.  The long list of ‘Don’ts’ included the explicit representation of murder, childbirth, white slavery, venereal diseases, ‘excessive kissing’ and, infamously, miscegenation (you can find the full text here).

However, given that Hollywood’s most profitable movies relied heavily on, as they do now, crimes and passions, the studios weren’t going to change the basic content of their pictures to satisfy the Victorian Dad demands of the Hays Office.  So, Jason Joy, the first code enforcer from 1930 to 1932, pushed for a more subtle style of moviemaking, which could still tackle adult, edgy subjects, without explicitly showing them onscreen.  He wanted writers, cinematographers and directors to construct narratives in a manner “from which conclusions might be drawn by the sophisticated mind, but which would mean nothing to the unsophisticated and inexperienced.”  In other words, think of the children, and communicate all the naughty stuff via subtext.

In many ways, the Hays Code era shepherded in the golden era of Hollywood.  Everyone — writers, directors, actors, costume designers, editors, choreographers — was forced to go for the implicit over the explicit, to hint and cover up, cut away before the kiss or the pull of the trigger, convey desire in a look rather than a line, to co-operate with the letter, rather than the law of the Code.  The filmmakers of this time became masters of subtext, speaking to “the sophisticated mind” rather than putting literal information on screen.  If you’re struggling to incorporate subtext into your own work, delve into movies from the 1930s and 1940s to see how it was so expertly done.

Hitchcock was the master of them all when it came to loading the meat of the storytelling into the subtext. Consider this clip from Rebecca (1940), awash with unrequited lesbian lust, ripe sexuality, seduction, hedonism, envy, and Mrs. De Winter’s tidal surge of inadequacy, layered beneath a gushing monologue from Mrs. Danvers that might not sound out of place on today’s HGTV. 

For the contemporary screenwriter, subtext no longer has to be symbolic or even subtle — no popping of champagne corks or trains roaring through tunnels or epic dance numbers to indicate that sexual intercourse has taken place between two characters, for instance.  Your audience has a sophisticated mind. You can be bold or playful with the simmering undercurrents of a scene. Subtext can be created implicitly within the following story elements, without appearing in a single line of your action or dialogue.

1. Intention

Your protagonist must have goals.  Not only do character goals shape narrative structure (the story is done when the protagonist has reached her goals), but they also create subtext because they indicate intention in every scenario.  Once your character knows what she wants and her goal is also clear to the audience, it doesn’t have to be mentioned again — no need for repetition or on-the-nose dialogue.  Once established, intention can be shifted to the subtext, where it can be used to create and escalate all kinds of dynamic tensions.

Intention can imbue small actions (checking the time, propping open a door with a fire extinguisher) with great significance.  It can also alter the meaning of a conversation, especially if the audience knows a character’s words belie their true, or likely, intention.

Intention is a tricky aspect of We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011).  The narrative is framed from the perspective of Eva (Tilda Swinton), who, over time, comes to suspect that her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) always has the absolute worst of intentions.  Eva also struggles with the idea that she might just be a Bad Mother who never quite got over her post partum depression. In this clip, we see a somber family meal, where the overriding tone is concern for an absent member, Celia, who has recently lost an eye in an ‘accident’. Yet Eva’s suspicions about her son’s intentions towards his sister give the scene an electric charge. Or is she just looking for things to hate? And what do we make of Kevin’s sudden liking for lychees? Is his goal to freak his Mom (and us) out? It’s all in the subtext, interpret it how you wish.

2. Deception

The most intriguing and dramatic stories are communicated not via the straight, unvarnished truth, but secrets and lies. Human beings are naturally devious. We balk at speaking what’s in our hearts, through fear, or wishing to appear better than we really are, or because we don’t want to cause hurt. Deception can be a matter of perspective (“Darth Vader betrayed and murdered your father" – Star Wars), a heroic act (“I’m no good at being noble”- Casablanca) or a comic springboard (“We're the new girls” – Some Like It Hot), but it always adds spice to storytelling.

Other than downright lies spilling from a character’s mouth, there are two essential types of deception in screenwriting. In the first, the character onscreen is deceived or self-deceiving while the audience knows the truth (see: dramatic irony).  In the second, the audience is also hoodwinked, but may have a sense that something is off kilter (see: unreliable narrator). Both these techniques rely heavily on setup and subtext to convey non-verbal cues about what might really be going on within a scene.

This scene from Orphan (2009) is rife with deception.  Superficially, it’s very sweet. Esther puts on quite a show for wannabe adopters Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) with her heartstring-tugging painting of a momma tiger’s reunion with her lost cubs. What a cute little girl! Wouldn’t you take her home with you there and then?  However, we know we’re in Act One of a horror movie, so we’re primed for the subtextual cues that suggest she is not what she seems, such as the too-precious-for-words polish of her delivery, the fleeting look of horror on the face of the nun as she realizes who John is talking to, the saccharine togetherness of John and Kate, and the other, normal, adoptable girls all partying in a room up the hall. Something is Not Quite Right…

3. Expectation

Sometimes screenplays pan out according to our expectations (which is one kind of viewing pleasure), other times, they don’t (which is another). Either way, there should be foreplay, especially in a genre movie.

The smart screenwriter always knows what the audience is expecting to happen next. Sometimes they meet that expectation (especially during the closing phase of Act Three), sometimes not.  Either way, expectation can create a very powerful subtext that in turn escalates the tension within a scene. Whether the audience is expecting a passionate kiss or a huge explosion, the subtext of expectation will have them on the edge of their seats.

Tarantino is a playful and skilled user of subtext in this fashion.  In this scene from Inglourious Basterds (2009), one layer of subtext is quite literal, a brief glimpse of the Dreyfus family huddled beneath the floorboards of a French farmhouse.  Their presence creates a near-unbearable tension as Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), resplendent in his SS uniform, plonks himself at the kitchen table and proceeds to discuss his nickname, ‘The Jew Hunter’.  The Dreyfus family doubt this will end well. We doubt this will end well. Yet Landa chatters away, musing on the beastly qualities of the rat, laying out his agenda in such a charming and eloquent manner that the true, murderous meaning of his words sinks into the subtext. This is truly the banality of evil. But we never forget why he’s there and what is likely to happen next: bloodshed.

4.  Location

Judging by the number of typos in scene headings, many writers fail to pay sufficient attention to the setting of each scene. This is a rookie mistake: the first, and possible most important creative decision taken when writing a scene is “Where does this action take place?”  Is it INT or EXT? DAY or NIGHT? 

The same banal chitchat between two people will have an entirely different subtext depending on where it happens.  Are your characters lounging in bed in their underwear? At a formal party, surrounded by envious allies and rivals, sipping champagne in tuxedo and gown? Are they on a windy clifftop at sunset? Aboard a speeding train? 

Hitchcock, again, proved himself a master of subtext in location in Vertigo (1958).  When Scottie (James Stewart) follows the mysterious yet alluring Madeline (Kim Novak) through the streets of San Francisco, she always moves downhill, in a loose spiral, a yonic symbol drawing him to his doom.  Conversely, she locates him thanks to his proximity to the Coit Tower, a phallic symbol that casts a long shadow over the narrative. Does it represent Scottie’s impotence? His masculine power over Madeline? It’s subtext: you decide. Only know that, in order to solve his crisis, Scottie must conquer his vertigo (fear of the tower), by navigating a winding staircase to penetrate the truth of the woman he loves. Entering through a church, for good measure. And there are NUNS. So much subtext, it hurts.

5. Philosophy

Some screenplays, especially science fiction, are driven by a wider philosophical subtext. Some ride on a religious creed.  Some tackle existentialism, casting the protagonist adrift in a crazy, uncaring world.  Others explore racism, or homosexuality, or class systems (hello, dystopia!). A philosophical concept can be presented within the subtext in the form of connections between metaphors or symbols, or as a more consistent allegory.

In a movie meant as mass entertainment, it’s probably best to communicate philosophy via the subtext, and to limit specific references in dialogue.  A symbolic act of sacrifice, or a character who stands for one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, goes a long way towards communicating your underlying ideas. Preaching is usually a bad plan. As soon as characters start explicitly arguing Kierkegaard vs. Hegel or outlining their Asatru beliefs, it’s game over for action, suspense and narrative momentum.   Aim to let the audience take their own message rather than teaching them a direct lesson. Conclusions are best drawn, rather than delivered on a plate — and if everyone draws the same conclusion from your movie, what are they going to argue about in the bar afterwards?

The Bill and Ted movies might, superficially, seem like dumb stoner narratives, but they can be interpreted as exploring a sophisticated philosophical subtext, of time travel paradoxes and infinite regress. Infinite regress is… no, wait, too complicated. Let Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan demonstrate via a symbolic set of keys instead. (Click image on right. Find the clip here.)

This scene might seem, at first glance, to be a wildly implausible way for our heroes to extricate themselves from a tricky situation, but their logic is flawless. Their reasoning raises all sorts of questions about where the infinite regression begins, and about the role of Rufus (George Carlin) in propelling the boys to world savior status and causing us all to be excellent to one another, always.

6. Sex

Sex is the constant subtext to our lives. Adult human beings think about sex most of the time, which means that it should never be very far from the minds of either your characters or the people in the theatre watching them.  People routinely appraise new acquaintances on a boffability scale, and while away the most formal occasion by wondering how the other people in the room look naked. We’re animals.

Since the collapse of Hays Code censorship in the late 1950s, we’ve become used to seeing sexual attraction played out in full on screen. There’s nothing stopping the filmmakers showing us the whole arc of a relationship from the meet cute to the soiled sheets. 

Yet, just because you can show something on screen, it doesn’t mean it’s always the best narrative choice. People think about sex all the time, but they don't talk about it, or do it half as frequently.  The act itself can be offputting. Sometimes it can be intimidating to watch the intimacy of strangers.  Sometimes the most eloquent individual struggles to put emotional desire into words. Sometimes sex scenes are awkward, or mechanical, or generic, or don’t reveal anything authentic about the relationship, and merely fill pages within the screenplay.  Sometimes sex is best if it lurks within the subtext.

And, not all of us like to be animals. Public rutting is for chimps (and Jason Statham in Crank). Human civilization has evolved to the point where we have ways to display our sexual desire (and prowess) entirely clothed, in front of a wholesome and appreciative audience. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I'd rather watch characters dance than fuck. Sometimes screen sex is best when the writer types “They tango” and the subtext does the rest.

“They tango” is the most wonderful screen direction ever. It can mean straight-up sex education by example;

Or the circumnavigation of sordid lust, infidelity, betrayal, heartbreak and revenge;

Or the last dance of a suicidal, blind man reconnecting with the passion of his youth;

Or the breakdown of all class and race barriers, the transformation of a girl into a woman, the rebuttal of false accusations, and the triumph of true love (see also: Footloose);

Subtext, by its very nature, is an inexact science. You should never try to be too specific, or to expect a narrow interpretation of your intent. Subtext is audience-dependent. If you’re reaching for metaphysical concepts, expect to be misread.  The deeper the subtext, the greater the risk. Yet film, more than any other medium, speaks to the intangible. Andrei Tarkovsky, maestro of cinematic subtext, puts it best:

I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.

Ultimately, subtext can only be suggested, never dictated. It’s where you open meaning up, rather than narrow it down. The simmering tensions within subtext are often more personal and unique to the screenwriter than the dry offerings of screen directions and dialogue, and, consequently, the quality of the subtext is what elevates a screenplay from commerce to art.  Screenwriting is usually an ego-less endeavor, but the subtext is where you are free to put 'you'.


What are your favorite examples of movie scenes with great subtext? Please share them in the comments.

Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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