Peggy Bechko: Writers, Let’s Get to the Subtext!

 by Peggy Bechko

If you’re a writer of any stripe at all, then you’ve heard about and/or considered subtext. For the rest of you the beginners, those in need of review, let’s talk.

For starters remember, characters you create are always doing something. They’re not just sets of talking heads. They do things. They do a log of things and they go through all sorts of drama common to the human condition. And, as live people, they don’t actually SAY most of what they mean, they express it in some way, thus the subtext.

That being said, plainly it’s your job, as writer to get that across, in novels and especially in screen scripts.

One great trick to doing that is to substitute gibberish for your character’s dialog and see what’s left between the lines. In between the lines of dialog (what your character’s actually say) lies what those characters really mean to say. “Between the lines” so to speak.

Using this trick it’s easy to see what’s actually going on. On the other hand if you’ve made the dialog unintelligible and reading the bits left leaves you unable to know what’s going on then the scene is no doubt in need of more subtext.

In addition to giving yourself, as the writer, a way to double check thigs with the gibberish trick, The writer needs to supply the characters with something that drives them, a goal. A boy wants to get a date with a girl, or get a job, or solve a crime, or whatever. That goal will automatically add subtext to everything that character might say.

With a goal in mind a character needs some action to go with it. A detective might be walking a crime scene, a shy boy might be shuffling around a bit outside a gym, a job-seeker might be all dressed up, stiff and nervous.

All of this adds up to body language. In a novel you can describe at length (hopefully not too much at length). In a script a lot of it is dependent upon actors, but the writer can certainly give hints, especially when it’s an important bit of action that fills out the story or tells the viewer about the character. A girl blows a raspberry at the boy asking for a date. A job-seeker keeps adjusting the knot of his tie at his throat.

In a novel a detective can both walk a scene and have some thoughts going on about it on the page.

Giving your character a secret is a good idea as well. Remember the first Jurassic Park with the character about to steal dino embryos? That scattered subtext all over the place whenever he interacted with another character or when he took any type of action.

Then, for more complications there’s one character knowing the secret of another character. That can really set things off; open lots of doors to subtext in every scene.

So what do you think? Can you keep firmly in mind that your characters are alive? That they have lots of ‘stuff’ going on and when they talk to each other it’s just like you talking to a member of your family with opposite political beliefs? There’s lots of subtext!

Think about it. Watch people interact. You do this and the way people move and talk will never be viewed from the same perspective again. And you’re going to get plenty of subtext into your scripts and novels.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.