This month’s article discusses subtext. Writer Maria Solecki talks about the importance of making the audience think, why great screenplays use subtext and how you can add more levels to your script with this effective approach.

If you’re a creative writer, and particularly a screenwriter, you may think that once you’ve grasped how to write economically and neatly, that there’s nothing left to learn. Your words tell their story, and your audience has understood what you’re saying. But there’s a whole other level to writing which, after cutting your teeth on the basics, is where the real professionals sit. These are the writers who have climbed to the top of the mountain and peered over the top; they know that there is more to it than the obvious words on the page. They are the ones who have conquered subtext. 

What is subtext?

Subtext is simply all the things the writer says outside of the words. Ernest Hemingway described it as ‘iceberg’ writing: you only show your audience the tip, but the rest of the information is there beneath the surface for them to imagine. 

Easy, right? Not really. Let’s look at this example from the film ‘Sideways’ where lonely divorcee protagonist Miles, a keen wine buff, tells love interest Maya why he’s so obsessed with pinot noir:

‘Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavours, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet’

Here, the writer allows the character to discuss his hobby but the whole speech is really about him – he is a difficult, intense man who is telling a woman how to handle him, and how it will be worth it. He does not have to tell her outright who he is – and Maya, and the audience, get a clever and revealing insight into the depths of his soul. 

Ernest Hemmingway coined the term the ‘iceberg theory of writing’
– that a deeper meaning should shine via implicitness.

Subtext is the gaps, the inferences, the omissions and all the implied things which pepper an author’s writing as strongly and as frequently as punctuation. It is quite often not what is said, but what is not said. The absence of words gives deeper meaning than if the author had explicitly spelled ideas out. It is what is shown beneath the written lines, in the gaps, and in the hints. It is the secret writing which readers or watchers absolutely love. 

For a humorous lesson on subtext, watch the balcony scene in ‘Annie Hall’ and see the subtext appear as actual text as the characters speak! 

Why do people like it?

Audiences love subtext because it makes them work. It means putting pieces of the puzzle together by themselves, and they love it! We’re made that way. Our imaginations demand it. We feel insulted with ‘on the nose’ writing, and we want to work things out for ourselves. Don’t tell me that your character hates his brother – show me with the things left unsaid, with the actions he does, and the words he doesn’t say. Never underestimate your audience! 

It is clever, makes us think, and evokes emotion

We thrive on those ‘gaps’. One of the reasons the recently acclaimed TV series ‘Fleabag’ did so well was that the writer was a master of subtext. Watch any scene from this show and listen to the subtext heavy dialogue – scenes between the protagonist and her father, sister and godmother are particularly laden with it. It is clever, makes us think, and evokes emotion. Most people now are very clued up when it comes to narrative – we’ve grown up with it, we’re constantly exposed to it and we’re super smart when it comes to plot. So, we want further challenges like this, because otherwise, we soon switch off. 

How do writers do it?

Learning how to write great subtext comes with time and practice. When writers first start out, they have little choice but to write things as they are on the surface. Subtext is hard and does not come naturally. But, given time and practice, it does come. It is easier for some than others, and some never achieve it. But by studying other examples of it, analysing that great TV show or clever film or brilliant novel, you’ll gain a good understanding of how it’s done. 

Screenwriters can develop subtext through dialogue, actions, and imagery. Write that first draft, then go back and prune. 

Next time you’re writing a story, script, or screenplay, think about making your audience work that little bit harder for their information. It’s all about engagement, and enjoyment. We’re naturally curious, and we like a challenge. Enjoy! 

Maria Solecki MA delivers writing courses and workshops around Southend and supports other writers with script and story development. She will be delivering her ‘Writing the Short Film’ workshop with EFC this Autumn. 

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