Every good film is loaded with subtext. It is subtle, and more than sarcasm or small talk. When you write subtext there is always much more going on in a scene than meets the eye. Subtext is the emotional feeling beneath the words. It is the truth beneath what is being said and heard. Subtext is what the scene really is about.
The sample scene in the chapter on screenplay format is filled with subtext. The man and his wife never once mention the fact that she is dying. They talk around it, and make plans for a future trip. Neither speak about what each one fears the most. This scene between the husband and wife is much more dramatic and emotional than if either spoke about her illness and how scared they both feel.
Subtext is when the audience feels and knows there is much more going on in a scene than what is being said and done. When you write a scene in subtext you doubt what the characters are really saying, because you know they are feeling something different from the way they're behaving.
Another example of subtext has to do with relationships. As you know, at the beginning of every romantic relationship the two people involved put their best foot forward. They present themselves in the best possible manner, since they want to be perceived in a positive way. They might be bored to tears with the conversation, but do they show their boredom? No! They smile, ask questions, make jokes, and show interest in what's being said in the moment.
But beneath their small talk they are feeling another way. Maybe they are wondering if they're making a good impression, or if their date will want to see them again. Maybe they're afraid their last remark sounded stupid. Perhaps one wants to end up at her date's apartment later in the evening. Maybe he can't wait to get home alone. But do they tell each other how they're feeling? Of course not. They're saying one thing but feeling another.
Think of your own dating experiences. How many times did you tell your date how you really felt, especially those times when you were either disappointed and couldn't wait for your date to end. Or other times when you were so smitten that you felt tongue-tied and awkward. In either case you tried to hide your true feelings, so you wouldn't hurt the other person or you wouldn't allow yourself to be vulnerable.
That is when you acted one way but felt another. Well, in good screenwriting that's how your characters act too. In fact in great screenplays there usually is little dialogue, but a lot of feelings beneath the words. It's important for you to use as much subtext in your character's dialogue or their actions. This allows your audience to bring their own feelings into play and enables them to identify with your characters.
In Woody Allen's classic film Annie Hall, there is a brilliant scene between Annie Hall played by Diane Keaton and Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, when they have just met for the first time in their relationship. How do they act? They make small talk to each other and both are really saying nothing. As they are talking, subtitles are being flashed on the screen revealing what they are really thinking. This shows the true meaning of subtext. They are saying things to impress and feeling stupid about what they say. It is truly a terrific example of how characters and people behave when they want to make a good impression, but feel stupid inside.
Subtext is how you want to write, especially when your characters are feeling emotional. For example, since most of us act one way and feel another, you want to write subtext in your characters' actions as well as their dialogue. Subtext often is shown through a character's behavior. A wonderful example of revealing subtext is through a character's actions, when he or she is behaving one way but feeling another as in Ordinary People. This film by Alvin Sargeant, which is based on the novel by Judith Guest is one of the best films to demonstrate the power of subtext.
In a scene in the film the mother, Beth, on the surface, says and does all the right things to her son, Conrad. However, it is clear to the audience that she's feeling different from the way she's speaking and behaving. She isn't being real, but playing a part. She is the per-
feet wife and mother but beneath her mask she is an imperfect person, unable to really give love.
One of the best examples of subtext in the movie is when the family is gathered together at Thanksgiving and they are taking pictures. The father wants to take a picture of Conrad and his mother together. All the while Beth keeps smiling as she refuses and keeps insisting to her husband, Cal, that she wants to take his picture with Conrad. As this continues Conrad finally moves away from his mother and shouts, "Forget the goddamn picture."
This is an excellent example of a scene that has strong emotions beneath what is really happening. This scene has much more going on among the characters than just taking a family photograph. In fact, it is a pivotal scene for Conrad, because it's the first time he is able to be honest and show his frustration, hurt, and anger toward his mother. The scene really is one of the most emotional scenes in the film and one which certainly is an impetus for a change in the family dynamics.
In American Beauty, a film about the modern American family and their values, there is a marvelous example of subtext between the father, the mother and the daughter when we see them at the dining room having dinner together. There are layers of emotions going on in that scene besides eating dinner. It is obvious that each family member is feeling many different emotions toward one another than is being expressed.
Each one feels isolated, lonely and disconnected from the other family members. Everyone is wearing a protective mask. Somehow we know that this family is on the verge of falling apart. We feel uncomfortable watching this scene and how the characters are hiding their real feelings. This is a truly great scene filled with emotional tension. It has so much more going on beneath the surface than having dinner. The family is ready to disintegrate!
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