Gerald Hanks Filmography

Monday, May 12, 2014

Screenplay Subtext: Don't Say What You Mean

Subtext in screenplays is much like obscenity in media. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it in the landmark 1973 decision Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it.”

Most rookie screenwriters undervalue the use of subtext. They often favor telling the story in a manner as blunt and straightforward as possible to ensure that the script delivers their message. They often fail to see that the most effective way to deliver a message comes from their characters avoiding the core message like the proverbial elephant in the room.

What is Subtext?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "subtext" as "the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as in a literary text)". While your written dialogue and actions carry one meaning, the deeper - and often contradictory - meanings behind those words and actions arise from the subtext. Your effective use of subtext can place you in the ranks of the true professional storytellers and separate you from the amateurs content to ride along the surface of the story.

Actions Speak Differently Than Words

You can often use the character's actions to illustrate subtext. These actions can either reinforce or, more frequently, contradict the character's dialogue. In the British film Locke, a construction site manager (Tom Hardy) talks with his wife, sons, boss and co-workers in an honest and conscientious manner. However, his actions on a car ride to London show that he's willing to throw it all away to make up for one mistake.

Denial: More than a River in Egypt

Another great source of subtext comes from how your main character deals with his major flaws. As in real life, most characters don't reach a full understanding of their weaknesses until the worst happens. The character can be in denial, like the alcoholic who says he can hold his liquor. She can persevere and bull-rush her way through the obvious obstacles, like keeping a broken relationship together for the sake of her children. All of these can reveal aspects of the character and the story through subtext.

Subtext and Conflict

As you've seen in an earlier post, any scene involving one or more actors must include some conflict. You can make this conflict a loud, boisterous argument, a tense, whispered conversation or an apparently agreeable exchange. The “surface conflict” comes from the content, tone and volume the actor uses to deliver the lines. The “subtext conflict” comes from the goals each character wants to achieve in the conversation and how they navigate the obstacles between them and that goal.

Read Between the Lines

Contrary to popular opinion (as fueled by some less-than-stellar efforts), actors do more than stand in place, look pretty and read lines on a page. Actors rely on subtext to deliver effective performances. They use subtext to determine the character's motives, goals, and fears. When your script has rich subtext, the actor's job turns from a recitation of lines into an embodiment of your character.

If you need help in finding, building or enhancing the subtext in your script, contact us at StoryIntoScreenplayBlog [at] gmail [dot] com. We offer individual consultations for aspiring screenwriters, which can give you the tools to get your script noticed by directors, producers and agents. You can also Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more updates.


  1. Your insight into subtext is worth its weight in gold. Inherently - intuitively - most of us know these things. But seeing them in print reinforces that and also goes to our ongoing development as screenwriters. Thank you!

  2. Subtext 101: "I do wish we could chat longer, but... I'm having an old friend for dinner. Bye."