On Facebook and a myriad of other places, people put forth various requisites or must haves, do’s and do nots, they claim are needed to write, if not a great screenplay, at least a perfectly serviceable one.
One of the most popular ones is subtext. Now, I prefer writers not worry about things like this, at least at first. I’m on the side of the angels who say, concentrate on writing a good story that is successful on its own terms and if it has subtext, good, if not, good. I mean why tamper when you’ve got a good thing going?
I prefer elements like subtext to grow organically out of the writing, not be foisted upon it. Still, if you are receiving constant feedback that your dialog is too on point, or that the reader feels as if they are being told how to feel, rather than being allowed to feel, you may need subtext, taken four times a day on an empty stomach.
One problem with subtext is that everyone seems to know what it is, but have difficulty coming up with a clear, concise and satisfactory definition that everyone agrees with. It’s like art: no one can define it, but they all know it when they see it.
But as a definition, I will use the following, because this how I hear people usually use it: Subtext is when someone says what they don’t mean; when someone says the opposite of what they mean; when the emotion of a character doesn’t match what they are saying; or when someone tries to get someone to do something without asking them to do it.
Yes, subtext is that passive/aggressive friend you can’t get rid of. Ironically, it is something everyone pretty much hates in real life, but can’t get enough of on celluloid.
However, instead of giving you a step by step way of creating subtext, I will, instead, list examples from classic movies and attempt to dissect how they achieve their effect.
Before I begin, I will make a few more observations. Not every line or scene has to have subtext, people often say exactly what they mean. Subtext can be visual or a symbol or metaphor. And the higher the degree of emotions showed, often the less subtext is used because subtext, to some degree, is deliberate and the angrier or more passionate a character is, the less deliberate they can be.
So on with the show. But beware. Spoilers ahead.
All About Eve
Sometimes you don’t recognize subtext until a second viewing because the opening scenes are based on a lie. Eve is an aspiring actress who wants everyone to think she is innocent and naïve, with no ambitions outside of hero worshiping the great actress Margot Channing. When Eve meets Margo and her friends, she tells her life story. But it’s all a lie. She is not sharing the truth, but using a false narrative to make everyone think she is naïve, when in reality she is cunning and ruthless. Only Margo’s maid, Birdie Coonan, sees through it at first.
After Eve has betrayed Margo by going on stage for her one night, she tries to seduce Margo’s boyfriend, Bill Sampson. When that fails disastrously, the venomous fishwife Addison DeWitt confronts her in her dressing room. This is an especially clever scene. Eve is trying to seduce Addison through flirting (flirting, almost by definition, is subtext). But Addison is five moves ahead of her. He is actually seducing her while allowing her to believe she is the one doing the seducing, also setting her up by getting her to reveal she is a sham.
Wit, especially staircase wit, can be useful in subtext (staircase wit is a term from Restoration Comedy-at that time, people met visitors on the second floor; so staircase wit is something clever you should have said, but only came up with it going down the staircase upon leaving). At one point, after an argument, Bill asks Margot if she wants to get a drink. Instead of saying, no, this argument isn’t over, she says: I’ll admit I may have seen better days, but I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut.
Earlier, the playwright, Lloyd Richards, is furious at Margo. Instead of coming right out and saying how he feels, he says: There comes a time that a piano realizes that it has not written a concerto. And of course there is one of the most famous lines in film history. When Margo throws a party, instead of coming right out and saying that Eve is a treacherous witch and she’s scared of getting older and that she’s unhappy and no one understands her, she says: Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night! After that, the party as a whole becomes one big scene of subtext.
The Maltese Falcon
This film also begins with a lie. Bridget O’Shaughnessy, using a fake name, hires Sam Spade and Miles Archer. She tells her story, but it’s all made up out of whole cloth. What she is trying to do, as Eve Harrington was, is make the two detectives think she is naïve and innocent, when she’s not. Here, no one is fooled, though they let her think so. This scene ends with Archer telling Spade he wants to have sex with her. But instead of telling his partner that, he volunteers to take O’Shaughnessy’s case and says: Maybe you saw her first, Sam, but I spoke first. Spade then calls Archer a douche by saying: You’ve got brains, you have (Archer doesn’t catch on that Spade is sarcastic here).
When Spade is about to leave the office the next day, he indicates his real feeling for his partner by telling his secretary Effie to remove Spade & Archer from the door and have it replaced with Sam Spade before Miles is even buried.
When Spade finds O’Shaughnessy again at an apartment she took to hide out in, he grills her. But she plays games with him. First, by again giving him a hard luck story. Instead of calling her a liar, he says: You won’t need much of anybody’s help. You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, and that throb you got in your voice when you say things like, “Be generous, Mr. Spade”. This is followed by a future meeting where Spade gives her info and she tries to hide what effect the news has on her by looking for a cigarette and stoking a fire. She’s using subtext here, but she’s very bad at it as Spade gives her more info and says: You won’t go around straightening things and poking the fire again, will you?
One more scene and one of my favorites. When Spade meets with Kasper Gutman, they play a game of cat and mouse. Gutman asks him a series of questions. Spade refuses to give the usual answers one would give. Then Gutman also has an unusual reaction by agreeing with Spade on his answers, even explaining the logic behind it. But both are just sizing the other one up, testing the other, as each tries to achieve dominance in the relationship by refusing to give the answer and responses most people would give.
The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep is, at times, nothing but subtext, especially when it comes to sex and romance, as everyone is trying to out cat and mouse each other. In an early opening scene, private detective Philip Marlowe is called by Vivian Rutledge into her boudoir. She thinks she is inviting a fly into her spider web as she subtextually tries to find out what her father wanted to see Marlowe about. But Marlowe is no fly and beats her at her own game.
However, there are two scenes that are of special note here. The purpose of both scenes is to let the audience know how these two characters feel about each other and that they are falling in love. The first starts with a game of chicken as Vivian calls the police. Marlowe quickly turns this into a very funny “is your refrigerator running” joke and Vivian joins in. It’s obvious that the characters are getting closer and in sync with their feelings.
The second is one I still don’t know how got past the censors. Nearer the end, Marlowe and Vivian meet for a drink and get closer to declaring their feelings for each other. It ends with the two telling the other what they like in romance here (and one can’t help but read in the bedroom as well), but they do so by describing what they like in race horses. The double entendre is what helps here. But in both scenes they are basically telling the other how they feel without telling the other how they feel.
The Magnificent Andersons
This beautiful drama has one particularly interesting scene where one character is being pretty on note, but the other character isn’t. George Manifer is in love with Lucy Morgan. But Lucy’s father is in love with George’s mother. For various reasons, including an Oedipus complex, George puts the kibosh on their romance. George is about to leave town and in a scene confronts Lucy telling her how he feels about her. He is astonished she has no feelings about his leaving. But she doesn’t show any because of the way George treated her father. Instead she continually smiles at George and wishes him well, pretending she doesn’t understand that George is asking her how she feels, torn up inside from the emotional pain. When they part, Lucy goes into a drugstore, asks the druggist if he has smelling salts, then faints.
It’s A Wonderful Life
There is one highly emotional scene especially worth noting. When Mary Hatch returns home, George Bailey is sort of forced to call on her. But the meeting is awkward because neither wants to admit their true feelings. When they both share a phone call from an old friend, the sexual tension builds up and when George admits his feelings for her, he says: Now, you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you’re… and you’re…, after which they fall into each other’s arms.
Sometimes considered the greatest movie ever made, it offers quite a bit of subtext in visual terms. One of the most striking is a series of scenes around a dining table showing the disintegration of Kane’s marriage. It starts out with a table, intimate with a small flower arrangement. The two never come right out and say they are having marital problems, but as the scene goes on, they quarrel while the table and flower arrangement seem to grow bigger until, while Kane reads his own paper, Mrs. Kane has begun reading the opposition’s paper.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This classic sci-fi movie has an exceptional bit of misdirection. When Dr. Floyd arrives on the moon, he runs into some scientists from Russia. The Americans have stumbled onto a large, black monolith. Not wanting anyone to know, the powers that be let a rumor go about that a communicable sickness is being contained. The Russians press Floyd on the issue, asking if there is a sickness. He refuses to support or deny the rumor, but does it in such a way to make the Russians think the rumor of the sickness is true.
Sometimes a symbol or metaphor can serve a subtextual purpose. At one point, Private Detective Gittes notices something odd in Mrs. Mulwrays’s eye. She says it’s a flaw in the iris. This is a metaphor of the human condition and how all humans are inherently flawed and imperfect.
Finally, never underestimate the power of a single line of humor and wit. When Chief Brody sees the shark for the first time, he says it all when he says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”