Thursday, November 24, 2005


When you dramatise exposition effectively, it has the potential to become the subtext of your scene. What the audience will be interested in is the behaviour and dialogue of your characters and they will subconsciously try to work out what really is going on regarding the story.

Subtext seems to be one of those elusive and difficult to grasp terms of storytelling but it doesn’t have to be the case. Once you have a solid understanding of your characters and start dramatising the story in its correct manner, subtext will automatically layer itself within the characters’ actions and dialogue.

It works best when the audience is in tune with what’s going on in the story. A plain scene involving the exchange of breakfast condiments between a married couple can become rich with drama and emotion if we know that their daughter was killed in a car crash the night before because the wife was drunk driving.

Of course, subtext also works extremely well at the beginning of your screenplay (see examples in yesterday’s post) and in this case, the audience is willing to try to work out what’s happening rather than being told. And that’s what audiences do best really. They work things out. They want to figure out who a character is and where the story is going, and they’re quite clever in these particular areas. It’s our jobs as writers to ensure that the story doesn’t become too plain or predictable, to keep the audience hooked or entertained with unexpected story developments.

It has been said that subtext should drip off every page of your script but that’s a bit of misleading notion as it creates an automatic stumbling block within the writer’s mind about how he’s expressing his story. In these instances, the writer can become too focused with creating oblique or tenuous links to subtext but will leave the scene cold and unmoving, or confusing and dull.

There’s usually some aspect of subtext at work in every scene anyway so don’t torture yourself by thinking there must be a richer and deeper level to your drama. Storytelling is so multifaceted that once you achieve one aspect of plot or character, three other areas will automatically fall into place.

Don’t fret too much at the first draft stage. Tell the story first, then read it to see if all the scenes, characters and dialogue are doing their job. If not, rewrite with a more astute mind towards subtext and clarification of story.

Academy Award nominated screenwriter (and mum to Jake & Maggie) Naomi Foner has this to say about subtext and exposition: "People don't talk in full sentences. There's subtext in real dialogue. I would cite something like this: You're in a restaurant, you're waiting for a guy who's really late and you're pissed. When they walk through the door, you don't give them a big speech about how late they are. Usually they say, 'Oh, sorry I'm late,' and you just say, 'It's OK,' but it's not OK. In a movie there are a lot of ways of showing that subtext. You have an opportunity to use people's faces, details, and visuals to counter the dialogue to actually have dialogue that's full of subtext and not put the subtext in the dialogue. That's very important. You have to know how to do that."

You can read an interview with the Writers’ Guild of America about her new film (Bee Season, a very good script), writing dialogue, and how the end is the hardest part of any good story.


sretherf said...

This is totally true... You have to make sure that you aren't just putting your characters on screen and letting them do various stuff, because the characters have opinions, feelings about one another, etc., and you have to let them epress them throughout the story (in subtle ways, not blatant or expositional). That's what builds the context and the reason behind how the character acts or reacts to what happens to them. Without it we'd have to reason to care about what they do or enjoy watching it in any way and we'd certainly not have any tension.

This is especially important if you are working with a kind of nuanced, real-life issues kind of story like "Bee Season" seems to be. You fall flat on your face if you don't communicate to the audience anything about the character's unique point of view vis-a-vis a given situaition.

Now if you're just doing an action thriller you might not need it that much, because you've got so much action taking place and such a constantly twisting and turning plot to keep things interesting the whole way.

Mystery Man said...

I know that this is post on subtext is nearly a year old, but I am so sorry I missed it. We've been studying subtext in dialogue over on my blog. We have over 25 posts now from various writers, bloggers, etc, on the subject.

It was SO much.

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