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Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Subtext but Were Afraid to Ask

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When I put out the call a few weeks ago, the most-asked dialogue question I received was, “How do I avoid on-the-nose dialogue?”

Which, if you think about it, is actually a question about subtext.

One of my favorite writers, Eric Heisserer, says this about dialogue and subtext (without naming it):

We have a responsibility as writers to know what the characters are feeling AND how they both hide and express it in the same moment. … In our writing, what our characters say is not the truth, but it’s a map to the truth.

This idea of how characters “both hide and express” what they’re feeling is central to understanding subtext in dialogue, our topic today.

I’m going to try to answer the avoiding-on-the-nose dialogue question but, if you’ll indulge me, I’d also like to talk about a few subtext-related ideas that you might not have considered before.

What is “on the nose” dialogue?

As always, let’s define what we’re talking about. Dialogue is described as “on the nose” when a character says exactly what he means, without any subtext.

Okay, then. So what’s subtext?

Scott Myers describes it this way: “’Sub’ means below, as in the implication below the “text”. The text — a character’s actual spoken words — is like a buoy or marker dye, designed to lead us to a spot. We stare at the surface, but sense what is underneath it.

It’s okay if that feels a little vague for you.

Basically, subtext is the unspoken, hidden, or concealed meaning of dialogue.

Now – one of the points I’ve wanted to mention for a while is that these definitions are a good starting point but they don’t cover everything you need to know. Giving a character an interesting, amusing, or stylized way of saying something (so that it’s not “on the nose”) is part of the equation, but there’s a lot more you can accomplish with subtext.

Subtext in a scene vs. subtext in dialogue

One thing I think we skip over a lot is the difference between dialogue subtext and scene subtext.

The interesting delivery I just mentioned is usually what people mean when they’re talking about subtext; that’s dialogue subtext. The line of dialogue is an interesting delivery for a sentiment that is other than or more than the words themselves. It’s when a character says, “I hate you” but actually means, “I love you,” for an easy example.

The subtext of a scene isn’t about what any one line of dialogue is or isn’t saying. It’s really about how the scene contributes to the story’s thematic conversation, with plot and characters all being a part of that conversation.

So the story the scene tells is a piece of the overall story’s big thematic idea. That’s scene subtext. I’ll circle back to this topic soon, but since we’re talking about dialogue in this series let’s stay focused on the topic at hand. (And I swear that’s not a dodge!)

A closer look at subtext in dialogue

Dialogue subtext can manifest in a few different ways:

  • When a character deliberately conceals what he means/thinks/feels
  • When a character subconsciously embeds some truth in his dialogue
  • When a character’s silence conveys meaning

The “I hate you / I love you” example above is an example of the first kind – the character is deliberately saying something other than what he’s thinking or feeling in order to conceal the truth.

If you think back to last week’s Leave No Trace example, you might remember Will’s line of dialogue: “Someone probably hit him with their car. He came too close to town,” which is an example of the second type listed above. The line contains a subconscious expression of how Will sees the world, e.g. society is dangerous and it’s safer to keep your distance.

How to avoid on the nose dialogue

So in terms of making sure your dialogue isn’t on the nose and instead conveys some subtext, there are a number of things we can think about. I’m listing tips below, but keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a checklist. There’s overlap between them and it’s probably better to think of these as prompts to help you generate ideas and vet your work.

1. Before you even get to scenes, make sure you’ve thought about your characters enough to be able to write them. You’ll make your scene-writing job easier if you also give your characters active traits, especially their defining characteristics. That sets you up for more interesting and dramatic character interactions.

2. Find the tension between characters. Do the characters have a personal relationship, and is there something unresolved to mine? Sexual tension? Power struggle?

Often, finding some tension between characters will give your scene an extra layer you might have overlooked. The scene isn’t about the tension itself, but the tension plays out in subtext as the characters are taking care of the business of the scene. As I mentioned above, when this tension connects to the big thematic idea in some way it can add even more meaning to the scene and the script as a whole.

3. Design scenes that are situations where characters can’t or won’t say what they truly mean. Interesting delivery springs from characters who can’t or won’t say what they truly mean.

Why wouldn’t they say what’s on their mind?

      • They might be embarrassed or afraid to admit some truth…
      • Or concerned about their image…
      • Withholding information to try to manipulate the situation…
      • Or withholding in defiance of another character…
      • They might be trying to protect someone’s feelings, needs, or reputation…
      • Or deluding themselves and unwilling to admit the truth…
      • They might be unsure about something and don’t want to speak too hastily…
      • Or they might just be trying to buy time…
      • Or they might have a secret about themselves or about the events of the story that they want or need to keep.

(That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’ll get you started.)

4. Use what you know about your characters to think about how their hidden thoughts and feelings might emerge.

For example, what does “deliberately concealing” look like for your character? Lying? Changing the subject? Answering a question with another question?

Or, if they’re subconsciously letting the truth slip in, what does that look like? Circling back to a topic that they deliberately avoided earlier? Reading into another character’s dialogue in a way that reveals their own thoughts and feelings?

So, in a nutshell:

      • Think about your characters and make sure you’ve identified some defining characteristics or know them well enough to know how they’ll show up in a scene, what they want, what’s at stake, etc.
      • Find interpersonal conflicts and tension that can play out alongside the plot-business of the scene.
      • Design scenes where characters have a reason not to speak in an on-the-nose way.
      • Use what you know about your characters to think about how their subtext might manifest.

A quick word of caution

Sometimes writers get so nervous about on-the-nose dialogue that they over-correct. This ends up in dialogue that doesn’t convey enough information about what’s going on in the plot or character development. It’s vague, or sometimes stilted. You might recognize this issue in scenes where the characters are talking but you don’t really know what they’re talking about or what’s changed by the end of the scene.

Remember, one of the requirements of good dialogue is that it sounds natural and organic. Dialogue that’s so vague as to be indecipherable misses the mark. Characters say things to get what they want, which means they’re usually trying to communicate something even if they’re occasionally bungling the job. If they’re not making any sense or talking for pages without making a point, make sure you’re doing it for deliberate effect.

One trick for avoiding this issue is to simply write the first pass of the scene with on-the-nose dialogue. Lean into it. Let your characters say exactly what they mean. Figure out what the scene needs to convey to the audience. And then revisit the tips we discussed above and find the reasons and ways subtext would occur.

What they’re hiding is conflict

By the way, the reason I like Eric Heisserer’s quote so much is that it automatically gets you thinking in the direction of conflict. With every line of dialogue, there’s conflict between what a character wants to hide and what they want to express. It’s tough to service both needs, but it makes for interesting dialogue and scenes.

Thinking about what your characters are hiding and expressing will help you avoid on-the-nose dialogue with interesting deliveries. But don’t stop there. Remember that subtext goes beyond that surface level of expression. At its best, the subtext in dialogue contributes to the script’s conversation about it’s big thematic idea – which is what makes the story meaningful.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

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