“Those moments in between the moments, those are the most interesting. What’s unspoken, the way we talk around things, the way our actions are inconsistent with what we’re feeling, how anger and affection manifest themselves in strange ways at inappropriate times.”

— Stanley Tucci

Subtext and ChoiceWhat is subtext?

Language is the obvious communication a conveyance of words. It is the antithesis of subtext, which expresses our genuine feelings and emotional state of mind. For example, we have all masked our distaste or annoyance with an expected veneer of politeness. Subtext is about communication by body language, the inflection of our voice, the movement of our eyes and the expression on our face. Subtext is an expression of real intent. If you hear the words “I’m listening to you” from a person with averted eyes and a clenched jaw, clearly the real intent is the opposite: to prejudge and resist assimilation of new ideas or information. How often can we tell that a person is in love or wants to be loved by the look in his or her eyes, even though the person proclaims the opposite.

Subtext is a component of the associations we make with our physical reality and with the speech and actions of our fellow human beings. Many of these associations we do not consciously reveal, but they are most certainly there. The term “association” in this context means the event that an object reminds us of. Often they are deliberate and precise; for instance, keeping a broken plate or a worn out garment that has long since reached the end of its useful life, but that reminds us of an important event or the person who gave it to us. Associations are not always positive or willing. I once knew a woman whose face seemed perfect for the Paul Simon lyric “she was a roly-poly little bat-faced girl.” The association was so perfect that when I was with her, I hummed the song silently to myself, making it all but impossible to speak or communicate with her in any meaningful sense.

The ubiquitous Freudian slip is an example of the subtext that distracts us either consciously or unconsciously from the matter at hand or the conversation we are supposed to be having. Perhaps calling your beloved by another’s name is the most common example of subtext expressing itself.

Our lives are initially all subtext: our conscious and unconscious intentions and associations over a short period of time. This subtext then is superseded by language and behavior.  It is the same with scriptwriting: the writer starts with a subtext — an expression of intent — and uses language to convey that intent as best it can. The director and actor explore the language, what is written down on the page, and then explore the subtext, that which is not written down. Subtext is derived from the subtle nuances within the script and from our own life experiences. To accurately deduce subtext we need to apply our intuition or common sense to the written word.

The importance of subtext

Writers have a preference for seeing their script as a text that can be realized exactly as it is written, with all words and gestures brought to life as originally imagined. In this paradigm there is no intrusion from actors or different interpretations from directors. The same is true of directors who imagine that their instructions are unambiguously crystal clear and, therefore, ought to be followed to the letter. The translation from concept to reality is never this simple in artistic expression. Whatever problems exist, real or imagined, a director must realize that actors need the time and space to do the work themselves. Failure to appreciate this fact facilitates a climate of micromanagement where the direction has degenerated into an atmosphere of control and animosity.

Against this background we can view subtext as an ability to read between the lines. It means interpretation of a dramatic script. It means looking at who people are expressing themselves as and not only considering the words that are spoken; in other words, it means looking at body language and genuine intent. Clearly, analyzing and interpreting the script is a key task of any director. In addition, directors must be able to read the subtext behind questions, complaints and, of course, compliments of the actors they are supposed to be managing. This is another way of saying directors must have intuition, the ability to be perceptive and spontaneous when engaging in actions, words and events.

For any form of artistic expression, the key to its success is an understanding of the subtext or intuitive level of the art form to be realized. As Martha Graham, one of the great pioneers of modern dance, eloquently states, “The secret to dancing is that it is about everything except dancing.” In essence, the definition of an artist is an individual that sees, feels, interprets, thrives and treasures subtext.

An example of language and subtext

Language by itself is an inadequate tool for communication. It is, however, essential. How else can we point out an error quickly and succinctly? Consider these examples:

  1. “Thank you for bringing me this file. Unfortunately, it is the wrong one.”
  2. “This is the wrong file. Please go back and bring back the right one.”
  3. ”How could you be so stupid? Why did you bring this file instead of the right one? Don’t you ever listen to instructions?”

It is obvious that an erroneous file has been presented, and the different phrasing of the response reflects three different subtexts and possibly even the subconscious intentions or characters of the individuals concerned.

The person making statement 3 is clearly a bully and berates or punishes the people who work under him or her; his or her style of management is probably by fear.

The person making statement 2 could be concerned more with getting the job done properly and efficiently and may well be a team player who prefers to “involve everyone in getting the job done properly.” He or she is likely to be fair and reasonable and to prioritize the project in hand over ego and personality.

The person making statement 1 could be involved in training and, as such, may be most concerned with teaching and encouraging his or her coworkers. Conversely , this person could be compelled to apologize even though he or she is not at fault.

The reality is that the second speaker’s intent could lie within a wide range of options. Identical words could be spoken, but the subtext could be a demand to pay more attention. The tone of voice could be dismissive or condescending; he or she could be criticizing the other person’s commitment toward the work and/or the person’s ability to do it. Equally, an intent to teach or encourage could underlie the phrasing. The point is that the correct interpretation of intent depends on the relationship between the two individuals and the context in which they are operating (i.e., the facts on the ground). For example, is this the first time that the same mistake has been made? Is the speaker just having a bad day? How important is it to have the right file at that precise moment in time? Is there time to fix the mistake? All of these variables are factors that affect both behavior and intention.

The first speaker could be using sarcasm to put the other person down, thereby saying the opposite of what the speaker really feels, which is in effect the same as the third speaker. In this frame, the first speaker is seeking to ridicule rather than encourage. A reevaluation of the subtext of the third speaker’s statement could reveal that the two individuals are old friends, so no offense will be taken by the retort.

It is clear that words and intentions garner equally crucial importance when we are communicating in the workplace; the same is true for characters communicating in a script.

Subtext in the writing

Taken holistically, the Hollywood film industry is frightened of subtext. In its indefatigable and steadfast search for risk-free products, producers and executives vigorously harass scriptwriters to clarify their scripts — in other words, to expunge the subtext from the writing. Recently, a director with whom I was consulting told me jokingly that the writer ought to make the script “director proof.” When, during the consultation, I highlighted a nugget of subtext (that is, a component that improved the writing or added complexity to the characters), he would exclaim, “Wait a second! That’s the stuff I want him to take out!” He was only half joking.

The concern is borne out of a fear that if the direction involves a dialogue with subtext, then the director could miss a vital component of the subtext, or choose the wrong subtext all together. The director may not find the magic words or avenues that bring the actor into direct contact with the desired subtext. As a corollary, a further concern is that if the actor cannot find the subtext on his or her own, the story may not be realized as hoped or could fail completely.

These are understandable and real worries; if a director misses the subtext and then fails to bring it to life, the story will become pushed, rushed, overwrought or disjointed. In addition, character development and acting may become flat, unconvincing and uninvolving. The complexity of scripts such as “American Beauty,” “The Insiders” or “Ordinary People” benefitted hugely from the insight and attention they received from their directors and actors. Conversely, I have come across excellent scripts that were turned into very bad films, despite the presence of premier actors and huge budgets. The common thread through all these failures is the director’s total disregard for developing the subtext.

In a climate where the bottom line is king, these high-cost and, often, high-profile failures give the development of subtext a negative image. Hollywood films are replete with truly awful, boring and turgid dialogue scenes, which have had any drama sapped out of them. There is a perception that such scenes are filler that has to be ploughed through and endured until the special effects and big explosions are presented. It is a vicious circle of mediocrity and a deliberate waste of talent and the imagination that is intrinsic to quality storytelling.

Hollywood avoids subtext with a technique known as “on the nose.” Scenes that contain lines such as “What’s going on here?” or “You just don’t get it, do you?” are difficult to find. I once sat in on a meeting of a network soap opera; I estimate that 80 percent of the “story notes” took the form of requests to the writer that all subtext be removed. The producer would continually quiz the writer on the meaning of individual lines, the writer would then proceed to explain their subtext, and then the producer would demand that the lines be altered. The remaining 20 percent of questions concerned words with too many syllables. It goes without saying that the original script was much better than the improved version.

What do I mean by quality writing?

JOHN: (Smiling at Graham) Do you pay taxes?

GRAHAM: Do I pay taxes? Of course I pay taxes, only a liar doesn’t pay taxes, I’m not a liar. A liar is the second-lowest form of human being.

ANN: (From the kitchen) What’s the first?

GRAHAM: Lawyers.

The subtext of this exchange, from “Sex, Lies and Videotape” by Steven Soderbergh, might be something like this:

JOHN: I think you’re irresponsible.

GRAHAM: I don’t like you either.

The Soderbergh version contains implicit subtext; it is not spoken or explained. Consequently, the writing is richer, and the characters are more intriguing and, amazingly, more realistic. One element that makes the Soderbergh version far better than the “no-subtext” version is its intelligence and imagination. It is not simply serviceable to the plot, even though we in our daily lives say things that are just as insightful and imaginative as the dialogue in the script. Communication in the real world is complex, rarely direct and often not clear to those involved. These genuine human interactions are loaded with and exude subtext.

A further component that makes the Soderbergh version superior to my “no-subtext” version is the use of metaphor. At its simplest, metaphor is a method of employing examples or “as ifs.” It is identical to telling an illustrative story instead of just stating the emotional and verbal exposition of the conversation. An example of responsible behavior is to “pay taxes.” The statement that lawyer is a byword for liar is a metaphor; it also has an intelligent resonance and an immediate impact, which can only help. In very few lines the writer has created a relationship without any characters having to declare their intent or state of mind. Put simply, metaphor is used instead of explanation.