Fleshing Out Subtext

Picture by Nana B Agyei

Picture by Nana B Agyei

Writing can be a ‘funny’ and frustrating activity. On one hand, there are days when we can sit and write a scene without having to think that hard. The scene feels right. It has the right rhythm, the right evolution and  it reveals the subtext through subtle and captivating actions and descriptions. It does what it was intended to do. Not only does it promises to capture the audience, it also guides and entertains the reader. Other times we struggle. We know what the scene is supposed to accomplish. We understand its intent. But, the writing is not delivering on the promise. It feels dry and obvious; subtext on a white page.

First of all, what is subtext?

The subtext is the content underneath the ‘text’. Everything that is not announced explicitly by the characters but is understood by the ‘reader’. The combined information emanating from the action (vision or sound), environment and context will reveal the subtext to the audience. When we think about a story, we often have the subtext in mind. We know what it is supposed to achieve, but we are unsure as to how it can do so.

Ever been accused of being too on-the-nose? Stop writing the subtext down in your drafts. What can we do to guide ourselves while fleshing out these more problematic scenes? If we feel the need to get the subtext out, to clarify it, refine it or simply visualise it, we can write it down on the top half of the table below. What does the audience need to know? What does the audience need to feel?

If we think of a script as mainly (if not almost exclusively) visual and audio information, we can only describe what we see and hear. The game is now to translate the subtext into the two cells below.

This helps in two ways. First, it gives you a set of ‘ammunitions’ before writing the scene, words describing the atmosphere of the scene and visual representations of the story’s and characters’ development. Also, when addressing the development of the scene in this way we tend to refrain (at least at first) from using dialogue to convey the essential elements of the scene, but concentrate on visual or more abstract audio elements to communicate with the audience. Furthermore, we can find the metaphors, iconology or references the characters might use in their dialogue. Do you usually speak your mind? Rarely.

Dilemma and Subtext with Billy Ray

Most importantly, good subtext cannot exist unless you trust yourself, your collaborators,  your audience and your readers. Every time you doubt whether they will “get it”, you are compromising your subtext. You have to love yourself enough to at least try it. If it does not work, there is always the re-drafting.  Trust that the ideas you have inserted in the script will be understood by the reader, appreciated and supported by the director, embraced and emphasised by your actors and other creative talents in order to hit your audience in all the right spots.

Subtext for the actors and the director by Judith Weston

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