Give your readers the equation, but let them do the math. It’s more fulfilling, and keeps your reader engaged, when you let your story’s subtext reveal itself.
If the words we see on the page is the text, all the content underneath is the story’s subtext – the information not explicitly announced by the characters but understood by the viewer or reader as the scene, story, or screenplay unfolds.
Subtext is a vital part of storytelling. Novelists have no boundaries; an omniscient third-person narrator is free to go into any character’s mind and describe his or her desires, perceptions, and inner thoughts to the reader. Playwrights are a bit more limited: they can’t bring the audience into the head of a character at every point in time in the course of the story, but there are a few tricks they can fall back on. The dramatist can resort to the helpful aside: when all action on the stage stops and a character directly addresses the audience, expressing his or her thoughts, motives, or apprehensions.
This device may achieve its effect in a play, but in a film, it’s not always going to work. Every few minutes – record screech, background action freezes, character looks directly into the camera and goes on an expository exploration. It works for Ferris Beuller and Wes Anderson, but it’s a specific aesthetic.
Subtext lies beneath the spoken lines in a screenplay. Anger, happiness, conflict, guilt, pride, envy – any emotion can be acted but never explained, certainly not through dialogue. A character will never say, “Look at me! I’m experiencing anger over here!” The character expresses the emotion, projects the thought or motivation through action and indirection. As they say, actions speak louder than words. In writer speak, it translates to “show, don’t tell.”
Consider this scene: A man comes home late after a long day (and night) in the office. He’s been drinking, his hair is tousled, and there’s a lipstick smudge on his collar. He stumbles in, exhausted. He puts down his briefcase, hangs his hat and coat, and enters the kitchen, where his wife is banging dirty dishes as if they were bongo drums. The husband asks, “How are you, honey?” “Fine,” she responds coldly, and without giving him a glance, she punctuates her reply by slamming the cupboard door. She promptly exits the room, leaving her husband standing alone, perplexed, when he spots the dining room through the entry door. He walks in with a look of deflated realization dawning over him. Two places are set, a cold, untouched plate of food on one end of the table and an empty bottle of wine at the other. Between them is a present and card which reads, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
She said she was “fine,” but the subtext illustrates she is anything but. She feels taken for granted and she’s angry – and for good reason. This scene is powerful, not because it was spelled out for us, but because of the subtext. The writer gives us two plus two, but lets us do the math, and we feel smart when solve the equation.
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