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Friday, July 30, 2010

Text, Context, & Subtext: How to Talk About Something Without Talking About it.

Subtext is like a donut hole. It exists, but only in the context of something else.

You don't really write subtext, because that's the stuff people don't say. To put it another way:

1. The stuff that people say is text.
2. The stuff that people mean, is subtext.

Let's say I give you a present for your birthday. All aflutter, you rip open the box and what do you see? A pair of Crocs. "Nice," you say. "I don't have a pair of these. Thanks a lot." But what you mean is, "If I wanted a pair of butt-fugly shoes made from tires, I'd become a liberal. Thanks a pantload."

That's subtext.

If you were writing this scene, the subtext will be lost on your reader if she doesn't know this character hates Crocs. That brings us to:

3. Subtext exists within a context. The more we know, the more the subtext resonates. Here's an example.

A MAN is ordering at a fast-food counter. The young cashier stares, expressionless. Here's the dialogue without further context.

MAN: Wait, no. Did I say double cheeseburger?
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: Changed my mind. Single.
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: With catsup.
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: But not a lot of catsup. Just enough to taste it.
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: And fries. No, onion rings. No, wait. Fries.
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: Fresh ones. I don't like when they've been sitting under a heat lamp.
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: And no salt.
KID: Yes, sir.
MAN: Well, maybe a little salt.

You get the idea. Pretty darn pedantic, right? That's because the dialogue is on the nose. That is, they say what they mean, and they mean what they say. Boring, boring, boring. But what happens if "the camera" pulls back to reveal the customer holding a gun beneath the counter, and it's pointing at the young cashier? The whole picture shifts,and with it, the meaning of the dialogue, which is suddenly very, very interesting. And it begs the question, "What happens next?"

Another example: Four people playing poker. Again, imagine the most pedestrian dialogue imaginable. Now, pull the camera back to reveal a bomb ticking away beneath the table. The four play on, unaware.

See? It's not the text that's interesting. It's the subtext. Subtext is what makes dialogue FUN. Does that mean you're supposed to write uninteresting dialog and let context do all the work? No, but when subtext does come into play, dialogue is enriched. It becomes the sort of dialogue that actors LOVE to say. Another example:

HE and SHE are at an expensive restaurant, celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Here's the dialogue without further context.

SHE: Wow. Fancy place.
HE:  Happy anniversary, honey.
SHE: You too. (Smiles and picks up her napkin.) Look at these napkins. They're huge. Feels like linen.
HE:  I wanted it to be nice.
SHE: Can we afford this place?
HE: Don't worry about that. Let's try to have a good time for once.
SHE: I'm underdressed.
HE: You look beautiful.
SHE: Excuse me. (Pushes back her chair.)
HE: You okay?
SHE: Fine. I'll be right back.
(SHE goes into the bathroom. It's a luxurious bathroom, and looks as if it had been dipped in gold leaf. SHE stumbles into a stall and throws up in the toilet. She pulls herself together, looks at herself in the mirror. After a short while, she returns to the table.)
HE: There she is. I thought maybe you fell in.
SHE: You should see the bathroom. It's bigger than our entire apartment.
HE: Try to relax, honey. (Raises a glass) To us.
SHE: To us. (She throws back the wine in a single gulp.)
HE: I love you.
SHE: I love you, too.

It's not bad, but not particularly interesting. Let's add some context and see what happens:
Just before coming to the restaurant, this couple argued about money.
Okay, that's not bad. Suddenly, the line "Let's try to have a good time for once," takes on more meaning. Let's add more context:
SHE is pregnant. HE doesn't know it.
Whoa! That's why she threw up! Now, when she throws back the wine, it seems a reckless, risky act, instead of someone "trying to relax." Let's add more context:
HE plans to file for bankruptcy in the morning. SHE doesn't know it.
Yikes. The money situation is worse than we thought. And she's going to have a baby? No wonder she's a wreck. Now, look what happens if we add one more bit of business while she is in the bathroom: 

(SHE goes into the bathroom. It's a luxurious bathroom, and looks as if it had been dipped in gold leaf. SHE stumbles into a stall and throws up in the toilet. She pulls herself together, splashes water on her face, and reaches for a hand towel in a basket by the sink. The hand towel is thick, expensive cotton. She fingers it longingly. She looks at herself in the mirror. Then she opens her purse and puts all the hand towels in it, closes her purse. After a short while, she returns to the table.)

Suddenly, those few lines take on weight:

HE: There she is. I thought maybe you fell in.
SHE: You should see the bathroom. It's bigger than our entire apartment.
HE: Try to relax, honey. (Raises a glass) To us.
SHE: To us. (She throws back the wine in a single gulp.)
HE: I love you.
SHE: I love you, too.

When SHE looked in the mirror, did she make a decision? About the hand towels? Or about the baby? We don't know.


See how subtext can heighten tension, raise stakes and create anticipation? And nobody has to directly address any of the circumstances we observed. The dialogue is now interesting, important, and loaded. Pretty neat, huh?

In ASHES TO WATER, there's a scene where the Sheriff is talking to the Judge in her chambers. He's got news she doesn't want to hear, and she wants to know who let him in. Clarence, the bailiff, let him in, he says. Throughout the conversation, the Sheriff is swatting at a fly that keeps buzzing around his head. He finally kills it. When they are through talking, the Sheriff gets up to leave and says, "Do you want your door open?" She replies, "No, close it. Clarence has been letting in flies."

Wha-? Did the judge just call the sheriff a fly? Yup. Did she say the words? Nope. Did she need to? Nope. Why?

Subtext, my friend. As intriguing as the concept of a donut hole, and every bit as delicious.


  1. I recognize some of these examples.

  2. Of course you do! I learned them from you!

  3. so, where do we put these contextual information that would enrich the dialogues with subtext? Before the scene in exposition... of after the scene?

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  5. How can you teach this in a simple way?

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