Diana Black: Subtext is Everything

Text-Subtextby Diana Black

Quick Quiz time:

For the following snippet of conversation, what are these characters really talking about?

CHARACTER A Shall I make a cup of coffee then?

CHARACTER B Don’t go to any trouble.

CHARACTER A It’s no trouble. Tea?

CHARACTER B Nothing.

CHARACTER A I’m only trying to help.

CHARACTER B Don’t.

This conversation gives a chance for a simplistic exploration of subtext alluding to the underlying meaning to the dialogue.

How many different scenarios could ‘Character A’ and ‘Character B’ deliver the same dialogue?

There may be a slightly discernible difference if spoken at a funeral wake rather than a wedding, or between lovers or feuding relatives, or between parent and offspring etc., but other than that, there’s no difference. Why?

Because the above has zilch to do with coffee or tea or helping and everything to do with the emotional baggage and sense of ‘beholden – ness’ that Character B feels towards Character A and wishes s/he didn’t; most likely to the point where B wants ‘out’ of the relationship.

Character A on the other hand, under the guise of ‘sweetness and light’, is trying to maintain control over Character B. What literally happens in a scene in terms of dialogue and action may or may not be what’s actually going down. When there’s disparity between the dialogue and action we have the characters playing their sub-text, resulting in drama, which makes for a much more compelling scene.

Not only do we love to watch drama unfold, we love the mystery, a puzzle; exercising our intuition.

Quentin Tarantino’s characters in Pulp Fiction (1994) – Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) discuss topics that on the surface appear to have nothing to do with their current situation. However, the underlying meaning and attitude behind their convoluted dialogue speaks volumes about character.

If done well, trialogues also allude to the over-arching theme. Take the scene from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (James L Brooks & Alan Burns, 1970 – 77) where Lou Grant (Edward Asner), as a gruff, hard-nosed boss hiding an inner ‘teddy-bear’, sets up the young and sincere Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) for a fall.

The American back handed sense of humor reigns supreme in this scene with him – smirk firmly affixed, lounging back in his chair, asks questions he knows he has no right to ask and enjoys her discomfort. When she, sitting bolt-upright, politely refuses to ‘roll over’ and dissolve into a tittering personification befitting those in the typing pool, he offers her an Associate Production role for the nightly television news.

Day One and they’ve already started to manipulate each other. He wants her high-tailing it back to the domestic front, where all fine and upstanding American women belong whereas she’s determined to stay and be a successfully, unmarried career woman; albeit out of necessity after being dumped by a schmuck.

And all of this conveyed not only painlessly but entertainingly – humorously – without the characters ever talking directly about it.

As a writer, are you taking advantage of the concept of subtext? Or are you focused on ‘telling-the-story’ via mono-dimensional characters and exposition, which is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

Try it. Go ahead. Explore power by infusing characters with sub-text. Instead of ‘on the nose’ wimps, give your audience warriors hurling thinly-veiled insults at one another and manipulating the other with ruthless determination, the way things happen oh so often in what is, for better or worse, real life.

As viewers we love to discover multiple layers of meaning and a character’s true objective because it alludes to our own perceptive cleverness. As writers using sub-text we can create a win-win situation in which we prove how darn smart we are by manipulating the audience into watching and listening closely and contributing to its own satisfaction.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer. TVWriter™ is proud to call her a member of our Advanced Online Workshop.