Subtext = subtlety

Notes from tonight’s Soho Screenwriters meeting:

The sign of a professional writer. In bad fiction people say what they mean. In real life, people talk around subjects – we don’t say what we mean. Subtext is content that is not explicit but implicit. The audience sees what the author is implying. Screenwriting is mind surgery – helping the audience build characters.

Subtext is all that is not explicit. Give audiences enough clues so that they can start to picture past events: life-changing events off-screen. Raise and answer loaded questions about characters through subtext. “Where did you first meet Marion?” Questions that reveal the ghost and relationships of the back story of the characters. A history that relates to a raw wound.

Major characters can know about a big event that happened before the film starts. They reveal aspects of that event through subtext.

There are other kinds of implicit content in films:

1. Metaphorical subtext
The Time Machine: Humans evolve into two distinct races in the far future. These represent the decadent middle-classes and the exploited working classses. In Hostel the actions of the American tourists abroad are a metaphor for America in the world.

2. Irony
Dramatic irony – knowing the motivations of characters

3. Innuendo
Words that can be taken literally that mean some sort of insult. Double entendre – can be unintentional in the part of the speaker. Makes audiences feel ‘in the know’ if they get the references.

These notes are about the subtext weaved into characters dialogue and actions within scenes.

A man’s wife leaves. A friend asks “What’s up?” He answers “Not much” – what is going on? What does he actually feel?

Husband: “We have meatloaf every Friday” Wife: “I thought you like meatloaf” Husband: “Why don’t we have some something different? You might like it.” – they are talking about food, but they could be also talking about their sex life. Metaphor. If the man and wife can’t talk about sex, we learn more about them. They have sexual problems. One of these problems affects other aspects of their life together. The audience will determine later which is the cause and which is the symptom.

Annie Hall:
The subtext appears as subtitles as Annie and Alvy talk on the balcony. Alvy: “Aesthetics” “What does she look like naked?”

As Good as it Gets:
People start as they see Melvin. He doesn’t have to say anything. Why does a nice lady hide from him?
Implication: “Remember what I said about Melvin about earlier?” (off-screen)
Sarcasm: “I love that dog”

We are supposed to understand all the messages implied in the script. If the dialogue is on the nose – what has the actor got to do? If you have good subtext, easier to cast A-listers. No subtext in the first five pages? Pass.


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