Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Film Courage Plus: Subtext In Dialogue.

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

Subtext - is it what you use to write movies like THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and RUN SILENT RUN DEEP?

In the real world, people seldom say exactly what they mean. We hint around and “test the waters”. When I’m on a first date, there are dozens of direct questions I may want to ask.... but I can’t. So I might talk about a friend who is divorced with kids to see is she’s ever been married and has any kids. I may ask if she believes in equal rights and responsibilities... when what I really want to know is whether she’d be opposed to paying for her own meal, because the lobster she ordered will probably send my Visa card over the limit. The difference between what I say and what I mean is *subtext*. Good dialogue is layered. It doesn’t mean only one thing, it usually has a second and sometimes even a third meaning. So when we are writing screenplays, we want to look for those lines of dialogue and those words that have more than one meaning... to make sure that our dialogue isn’t obvious and “on the nose” (which is the same as obvious - but I figured I’d give you that term’s definition if you were unfamiliar with it). We want dialogue that hints.

Think about what each character wants in the scene, and how that will influence their dialogue. One method for creating subtext is to give the audience information about what the character needs, so that we know what they’re hinting at. Another method is to create a situation we understand, so the dialogue doesn’t have to be obvious. You spot an empty seat in a crowded cinema and ask: “Is this seat taken?” That line has a different meaning if you’re talking to a dangerous-looking biker or an attractive member of the opposite sex. The situation creates the subtext. *Situation* is one of the most important things in screenwriting that few people talk about. As the writer, we create the situations in the story, and those situations often shade the meaning of whatever is happening in those scenes and moments.

The third method for creating subtext is to have the actions of a character at odds with what they are saying. If a character is hiding and shaking in fear, but says:”I’m not afraid”, we know they are trying to impress the person they are speaking to... or convince themselves. This is using words and pictures together - which is one of the important parts of screenwriting. We are usually telling the story with our images and the character’s actions, and using the dialogue to give an additional layer of information. So the actions show fear, the dialogue attempts to show bravery, and between the two elements we have a clear picture of what this character is feeling and thinking. So consider having the words and pictures be opposites, and the truth somewhere in the middle.


A good example of subtext can be found in an episode of the TV show THE CLOSER - Homicide detective Brenda (Kyra Sedgwick) and her boyfriend FBI agent Fritz (Jon Tenney) have been renting a home together in Los Angeles, and one morning while showering together Fritz suggests that they buy a house, so they aren't just pouring rent money down the drain. He has even found a house...

	Four bedrooms, ranch style, big backyard, 
	pool, custom gourmet kitchen.

	And it's within our price range?


	Where's it located?

	New copper plumbing, new electric, new 

	Where, though?

	Great school district.

	Fritzy, where is it?


Which is way the heck out in the hinterlands of Los Angeles County. Brenda thinks it's too far. The discussion is interrupted by a call - and the episode's murder plot. But they get back to talking about the house later in the episode. Brenda has come up with an alternative house in their price range in the Hollywood Hills.

	The house is between your work and mine.

	Two bedrooms, office, pool, great views. 
	I take it, then, you aren't interested in 
	what school district we buy into?

	I don't think we need to worry about 
	schools, really.

	I see.

	If you absolutely have your heart set 
	on a bigger place...

	A bigger place has to be something we 
	both want. Maybe in this case smaller 
	is better.

Okay, folks - are they talking about buying a house? Or something else? The dialogue is all about buying a house, the location and size of the house. But what they are really discussing is the future of their relationship and what that relationship entails. Subtext is what's being said *between the lines*.

The key is to find a subject that can be discussed that allows for double meanings.

Find something that can work as a simile for what your characters are really talking about.


But an important element of subtext in dialogue is great dialogue is what the characters are *doing* - the actions and the situation and the visuals. A movie gives the audience information through dialogue and through visuals and the actions of the characters.

When you ignore the images and only use dialogue to tell your story, you’re not only wasting money on film stock, you are forcing the dialogue to do all of the heavy lifting. This results in trite, expositional dialogue. Instead of having a character tell us how they feel, find an action that demonstrates how they feel. When the image part does its fair share of the storytelling, the dialogue is free to go out and play. It can be loose and realistic. Characters don’t have to say the obvious, they can be subtle and clever.

Keep in mind the “See & Say Rule” - if we see something there’s no reason to talk about it. Dialogue should be a counterpoint to visual, giving us another layer of information. Creating realistic dialogue requires thinking of each character as an individual, with their own agendas, secrets, wants and needs. The better you know your characters, the more realistic your dialogue will become... which I touch on in another Film Courage clip and will expand on in the article for that one. You have to write realistic dialogue that is also layered with information. Like that scene from “The Closer” about looking for a house - it’s not about the house, it’s all about the relationship. This is why improvised dialogue almost never works - it’s not layered, it’s obvious. No depth. No subtext... just what the actor thought of saying just now. We want dialogue that seems realistic - seems like something that the character just thought of, but actually has deeper meaning and multiple meaning. The *appearance* of realism. But better.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill


50 Tips On Dialogue!

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Thank you to everyone!


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