The Mystery of Subtext
by Hal Croasmun
For most people, subtext is the most elusive of all the
writing skills. You ask a writer about subtext
and you'll get a vague answer that will leave you confused. Why? Because many of the best
writers of subtext operate primarily from intuition. So they don't
have a conscious structure they can teach.
But there is a structure to subtext and it can be learned.
The quality of your dialogue can be dramatically improved
by building in meaningful subtext. Well written subtext is the
mark of a professional writer. On the other hand, constant on-the-nose
(OTN) dialogue is the mark of an amateur writer.
Below, I've analyzed the subtext in the first three pages
of AS GOOD AS IT GETS written by Mark Andrus and James J. Brooks.
When you read it, along with my notes, you'll understand why producers
say that they can tell if a writer is any good in the first five
pages. Keep in mind that this is what you're up against when you
send a script in.
Remember, subtext plays a vital role in bringing a script
to life. It takes the movie from an external projection on a screen
to an internal experience that an audience can live and enjoy.
Read my notes from these three pages and you'll understand
why subtext is so important.
AS GOOD AS
apartment doorway. As it opens and an enormously SWEET-FACED,
ELDER WOMAN steps out, bundled up against the cold -- turning
back to call inside to the unseen love of her long life.
going to get some flowers, dear. I'll be back in twenty minutes.
It's tulip season today. I'm so happy.
And now she
turns and faces the hallway... her sweetness dissolves in
a flash... replaced by repulsion and that quickly she has
reversed herself and re-entered her apartment... closing the
door as we consider her vacated.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Without a word from Melvin or the Sweet-faced
woman, we get the message that Melvin turns people off. This does
two things. First, it delivers a subtext message about Melvin.
Second, it sets up future subtext by instantly causing us to suspect
anything Melvin says.
POV - MELVIN
hallway... Well past 50... unliked, unloved, unsettling. A
huge pain in the ass to everyone he's ever met. Right now
all his considerable talent and strength is totally focused
on seducing a tiny dog into the elevator door he holds open.
Come here, sweetheart... come on.
SUBTEXT NOTE: The description of Melvin is a complete design
for subtext. If Melvin is "unliked, unloved, unsettling, a huge
pain in the ass," then anything nice he says will be considered
through that description. Melvin's first words are a SCAM he's
running on this dog and ultimately it's owner. Melvin says "Come
here, sweetheart." and we interpret that he's luring the dog.
at a particular spot on the hall carpeting. Melvin lets the
elevator door close and advances on the mutt who has ignores
go for a ride? Okay, sweetie?
The dog lifts
his leg at the precise moment Melvin lunges and picks him
up with a decisive heft -- so that dog urine squirts the hall
wall for a second or two. The DOG sensing a kindred spirit
starts to GROWL and BARK.
(a malevolent tone)
You've pissed your last floor, you dog-eared monkey.
SUBTEXT NOTE: At this moment, our suspicions are confirmed.
Melvin means harm to the dog. This is the point where the true
meaning of the subtext is revealed. It's also the setup for subtext
that will show up on the next page.
takes a snap at Melvin, but the man is much meaner and quicker
than the dog -- he holds his snout shut with his hand and
reaches for the door of the garbage chute.
I'll bet you wish you were some sort of real dog now, huh?
Don't worry... this is New York. If you can make it
here, you can make it anywhere, you know? You ugly,
And with that,
he stuffs him in the garbage chute and lets go. We hear a
FADING SERIES of PLEADING "ANOOOOS" from the DOG fade to nothingness...
as another apartment door opens emitting the loud sounds of
a PARTY and SIMON NYE, early 30s. Simon has been born and
raised with Gothic horror and it's strange that what that
stew of trauma has produced is a gifted, decent man.
BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY - NIGHT
he bolts into the hall... Melvin is just about to enter his
Verdell!?!! Here, good doggie...
Mr. Udall... excuse me. Hey there!
(as Melvin turns)
Have you seen Verdell?
What's he look like?
SUBTEXT NOTE: Here, we have another form of subtext --
the lie by omission. Also, dramatic irony. We know that Melvin
knows where the dog is, but Simon doesn't know. Once again, Melvin
says "What's he look like?" and we hear Melvin's unwillingness
to tell what he's done.
starts to walk back to his apartment door which is directly
My dog... you know... I mean my little dog with the adorable
face... Don't you know what my dog looks like?
I got it. You're talking about your dog. I
thought that was the name of the colored man I've been seeing in
O.S. -- and sees his black friend.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Here is another form of subtext -- misdirection.
Melvin's answer to the question about the dog is to point the
conversation toward Simon's friend and create controversy to cover
Which color was that?
Like thick molasses, with one of those wide noses perfect for smellingtrouble
and prison food...
Frank Sachs -- Melvin Udall.
How're you doing?
SUBTEXT NOTE: Another form of subtext -- feinting politeness.
But we know that Melvin doesn't like Frank, so his politeness
isn't real. That will clearly be shown in the next few lines.
Franks shows my work, Mr. Udall. I think you know that.
Simon, you've got to get dressed.
What I know is that as long as you keep your
work zipped up around me, I don't give a fuck what or where you
shove your show. Are we being neighbors for now?
SUBTEXT NOTE: Here, the real meaning of the polite line
above is shown. He wasn't really being polite, just setting Frank
Do you still think I was exaggerating?
SUBTEXT NOTE: This question is another form of subtext
-- implication. It implies a conversation Frank and Simon had
about Melvin earlier. With this question, we experience the conversation
without it ever being on the screen.
Definitely a package you don't want to open or touch.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Another form of subtext -- metaphor. What
Frank is really saying is that Melvin is so disturbing that they
shouldn't talk with him -an innuendo, which is a language pattern
of subtext. But saying it through the metaphor of a package is
much more elegant than blurting out an insult.
Hope you find him. I love that dog.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Politeness, lying, what else would we expect
from Melvin? How about sarcasm? Another language pattern of subtext.
This is a very well written script. They use subtext well
without overusing it. Notice how we as an audience are clued in
on most of the meaning of the subtext. It adds to our experience
of these characters, without frustrating or confusing us.
Let's take a look at what has happened in the first three
pages of AS GOOD AS IT GETS. We have excellent examples of:
- Five of the seven internal states of subtext.
- Three of the ten methods of subtext cover-up.
- Four of the eight language patterns of
- A character specifically designed for
- Two of the eight methods of designing
a scene for subtext.
There are two extremely important things you need to know
about this script:
1. Notice how all this subtext has made Melvin a very interesting
character -- a character so compelling that Jack Nicholson decided
to play it. This script was written for casting. Each character
is designed to attract an A-list actor and subtext played a big
part in that.
2. Just as important, this is the level of your competition
when you send a script to Hollywood. Professional writers use
subtext well. Their scripts give an audience an internal experience
of the movie. When readers recommend a script, this is the kind
of work they feel will justify a recommendation.
WHAT TO DO?
As you can see in the example from AS GOOD AS IT GETS,
subtext can be brought down to a workable model you can learn.
But it takes observation, insight and practice. Here are some
actions you can take to improve your subtext:
- Notice subtext in scripts and movies. Many times, just
one excellent example of subtext will give you the insight you
need to write better subtext.
- Look through your most current script and highlight opportunities
for subtext. Many times, you can write great subtext without
adding a single line to the script.
- Make it a habit to write at least one good line of subtext
a day. This will get you thinking through subtext and will pay
off when you write your next screenplay.
- Take a short-cut. The program I'm offering called REVEALING
SUBTEXT could save you five years when it comes to learning
If you've read this far, you probably see subtext in a
new light and that in itself could improve your writing. Almost
anything that can be said directly in a story can be delivered
through subtext. All it takes is a slightly different perspective
. . . and subtext is in your future.
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