Subtext, so easy, am I right?

You know when people say, “show, don’t tell”? Well, subtext is a bigger part of that than it’s given credit. As human beings, we rarely say exactly what we want to say and the true message we are conveying is often between the lines. This can make listening to people’s conversations fascinating as we use tone and context to establish what’s really being said. It’s possible to write a dialogue heavy script that never really tells the audience anything out-right and instead expects them to decipher

For me, the key to writing subtext is to have a healthy scene dynamic in place. Our characters need to be navigating scenes with a chess-like strategy. Once we know every beat of the scene, every little play and reaction, then we know what the characters are trying to do. By knowing what they are trying to do, we can then add a layer of normality that seems more like everyday life over the top of that dynamic. Working this way around makes writing realistic dialogue and action a lot easier.

Example: In Twilight (2008), the first thing we hear Bella Swan’s father say to her during an awkward car ride is “Your hair’s longer.” to which she replies “I cut it since last time I saw you.” His comment suggests he’s trying hard to connect with her while her reply¬†tells us that he’s not been paying enough attention to her and she’s prepared to call him out indirectly.

This all said, learning to turn direct statements into normal conversations laced with context takes some practice. The worksheet below is a system I developed very early on to help me.

TURN & BURN SUBTEXT WORKSHEET
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WHAT IS THE MOST LITERAL VERSION OF WHAT THE CHARACTER IS SAYING?

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WHAT IS THE EXACT OPPOSITE VERSION OF WHAT THE CHARACTER IS SAYING?

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WHAT IS THE MOST ABSURD VERSION OF WHAT THE CHARACTER IS SAYING?

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THE ABOVE COMBINED INTO SOMETHING MORE REALISTIC:

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