How to Write Heartbreaking Subtext

Heartbreaking subtext in Dangerous Liaisons
Heartbreaking subtext in Dangerous Liaisons

Subtext in stories, when masterfully crafted, can create humour, levity, and a sense of play for readers and audiences, but it can also generate discomfort and raise story questions.

Subtext arises when readers and audiences are made aware of the true meaning of words and actions in a scene, but some, or even all of the characters in the scene remain oblivious to it.

Let’s see how it works!

In the iconic scene from the film Dangerous Liaisons, the Vicomte De Valmont, portrayed by John Malkovich, generates powerful emotions as he delivers a crushing blow to Madame De Tourvel, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s a scene charged with pain, tension and emotional complexity, revealing the power of subtext and its profound impact on the audience. Here, the subtext—the connotative meaning of the words is that De Valmonte loves Madame De Touvel deeply, but his pride and personality will not let him admit it, lest it enslave him, so he denies his love, and goes out of his way to hurt her. The dramatic irony here is that he knows his love for her is so deep that it would control him—something he cannot abide.

  1. The Illusion of Control

De Valmont’s words, “It’s beyond my control,” is a phrase repeated many times in the scene, drawing our attention to its deeper significance. For one, it points to the illusion of control that people cling to. For another, despite his apparent freedom of choice in the situation, De Valmont absolves himself of responsibility by suggesting that external forces are dictating his actions. This mirrors a common psychological phenomenon where individuals rationalize their behavior by attributing it to circumstances beyond their control. It’s a coping mechanism, an attempt to reconcile their actions with their self-image.

This reminds us of the fable of the scorpion and the frog where the scorpion’s destructive nature leads to the drowning of the both of them, and is excused with the phrase, “It’s in my nature.”

De Valmont’s assertion that leaving Madame De Tourvel is “The way of the world,” echoes this sentiment. The audience is confronted with the disconcerting truth that people may choose to relinquish accountability rather than to confront the consequences of their actions.

  1. Manipulation and Deception

Throughout Dangerous Liaisons, manipulation and deception are recurrent motifs, and the subtext of this scene is no exception. De Valmont’s words are carefully chosen to manipulate Madame De Tourvel into accepting his decision, despite her heartfelt pleas. By framing his actions as inevitable and beyond his control, he effectively shifts the blame away from himself and onto external factors. This manipulation adds complexity to the scene, drawing the audience into the intricate web of deceit.

Again, De Valmont’s behavior reflects a broader societal tendency to evade accountability through a linguistic sleight of hand. Phrases like “It’s not my fault” or “I can’t help it” are often used to justify morally dubious actions, shielding individuals from the consequences of their behavior and their conscience. In this way, the scene serves as a poignant commentary of the ability of language to shape perception and manipulate reality.

  1. The Tragic Cost of Pride

At the heart of De Valmont’s decision to leave Madame De Tourvel is his pride, which refuses to allow him to give his love to a single woman. Despite his deep feelings for her, he chooses to prioritise his own ego over their relationship, ultimately leading to tragic consequences for both of them, which ironically is the ultimate proof of the love they shared. The theme of pride as a destructive force is a recurring motif in literature and film and lends this scene a poignant sense of enduring tragedy.

De Valmont’s reluctance to admit vulnerability or emotional dependency reflects his aversion to perceived weakness. By framing his decision as a matter of pride rather than love, he tries to shield himself from the pain of emotional intimacy, but ends up perpetuating a cycle of suffering for both himself and Madame De Tourvel. It’s a powerful reminder of the destructive power of unchecked pride and ego.

  1. The Echoes of Reality

As De Valmont bludgeons his lover with his fateful words, over and over again, echoing sentiments of inevitability and resignation, we are confronted with the uncomfortable truth that his behavior mirrors real-world attitudes towards accountability and responsibility. The scene is a microcosm of broader societal dynamics, where individuals often prioritise self-interest over empathy and integrity.

This reflection of reality in the subtext underscores the film’s enduring relevance and resonates with audiences on a deeper level. In a world where accountability is often avoided and responsibility shifted onto external forces, the scene serves as a reminder of the importance of confronting the consequences of our actions.


Subtext occurs when readers and the audiences are made aware of the true meaning of words and actions in a scene, but some, or even all of the characters in the scene remain oblivious to it.

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Dreams in Stories

Dreams in Storytelling
Dreams in Storytelling

In storytelling, dreams function as powerful tools that explore mysteries, characters’ psyches, and blur the lines between reality and imagination. The Test Dream (S5 E11) from The Sopranos masterfully exemplifies this narrative technique, showcasing how dreams can be utilised to deepen the narrative and expose hidden truths. Here are five points elucidating the significance of dreams in storytelling, supported by specific examples from this ambitious episode:

The gist of the episode features Tony’s problems emanating from his affairs, the problems they have wrought on his marriage, and a dream that reveals the assassination of mob members that can lead to a full-scale war. This hints at the prophetic, poetic power of dreams.

Exploring Subconscious Desires and Fears: Dreams provide a stage on which to act out the subconscious desires, premonitions, and the fears of characters. In The Test Dream, Tony’s dream sequences offer glimpses into his deepest anxieties and desires. For instance, his dream interactions with deceased characters like Gloria Trillo and his cousin Tony Blundetto reveal unresolved guilt and trauma. These encounters reflect Tony’s subconscious grappling with the consequences of his actions and the weight of his wrongdoing, adding depth to his character.

Symbolism and Metaphor: Dreams are laden with symbolism and metaphor. Freud and Jung spend their entire lives studying them. Dreams allow writers to convey complex themes sub-textually, in poetic and abstract ways. In the episode, recurring motifs such as the horse symbolise Tony’s problems with his marriage, self-control and self-worth. The surreal imagery of riding a horse through his living room serves as a metaphor for Tony’s attempt to navigate, with grace and authority, an increasingly chaotic life littered with affairs and criminal associations.

Blurring Reality and Fantasy: Dream sequences blur the lines between reality and fantasy, challenging the audience’s perception of what is real. The Test Dream dives into Tony’s subconscious world, creating a sense of disorientation, forcing us to try and make sense of what we are seeing. The blending of subconscious experience drawn from the materials from Tony’s life is juxtaposed against the fluid nature of dreams, where logic and coherence give way to surrealism and randomness, yet still manage to convey significance.

Foreshadowing and Revelation: Dreams can also foreshadow future events or reveal hidden truths that characters may not consciously acknowledge. In this episode Tony’s dream encounters with Annette Bening and deceased Detective Vin Makazian, Finn’s mother and father, and other deceased characters, foreshadow Tony B’s murder of Billy Leotardo and wounding of Phil because they murdered Angelo, Tony B’s former cell mate. These surreal encounters serve as harbingers of the challenges, assignations, and persistent conflicts that await Tony in the waking world.

Narrative Innovation and Artistry: Dream sequences offer opportunities for narrative innovation and artistic expression. The Test Dream is a proof of the creative possibilities of dream storytelling, with its inventive visuals, surreal imagery, unconventional narrative structure, and its inclusion of cultural references such as Chinatown, The Godfather, The Valachi Papers, Scrooge, and many, many more. Matthew Weiner and David Chase’s writing and the cast’s performances elevate the dream sequences from fanciful plot devices to evocative and poetic explorations of symbolism, character and theme. The result is a story that rises above its denotative dimension, lifted by its connotative, multi-layered wings.


Dreams enrich storytelling by dipping into the characters’ subconscious, employing symbols and metaphors, blurring reality and fantasy, foreshadowing future events, and showcasing the poetic dimension inherent in narrative innovation.

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Foreshadowing your way to writing success

Foreshadowing in The Shining

What is foreshadowing and how does it help you write engaging stories? Let’s find out!

Foreshadowing is the skill of preparing readers or audiences to consciously or unconsciously accept the actions and events that will unfold later in a story. There are two main types of foreshadowing: Direct, where clues are openly laid out for all to see, and Indirect or subtle, where the clues are subtly hidden a little deeper into the narrative. In terms of writing skill, foreshadowing often increases the sense unity in a story by tying together seemingly unconnected actions, events, or objects across narrative time.

Let’s say, as in the case of subtle foreshadowing, that the audience has unconsciously noticed something earlier in the story, but not paid much attention to it, only to have it suddenly snap into place a little later as something which makes sense of a current narrative event. This acts as a bridge across time, creating a sense of fullness and unity in the mind of the audience.

In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, we are presented with a masterclass in the use of foreshadowing. Firstly, let’s examine a couple of examples of direct foreshadowing from the film.

Direct Foreshadowing: There will be blood!

Direct foreshadowing places the audience in a heightened state of anticipation: The tsunami of blood in the elevator serves as a visceral example of direct foreshadowing. It leaves no room for misinterpretation, foretelling the horror and violence that will soon consume the Torrence family. This sequence represents the evil that Danny has foreseen—rooted in the hotel’s cruel history. (Tony, Danny’s alter ego, reveals to Danny that he doesn’t want to go to the hotel). The obvious suggestion is that more blood will be shed.

Here’s another example of direct foreshadowing: The hotel manager tells Jack that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, killed his wife, two young daughters and himself at the hotel a decade prior, but it his duty to tell Jack about the event. The not-so-subtle hint to the audience is that Jack will do the same to his own family.

Subtle foreshadowing: Watch now, understand later

But it is subtle foreshadowing that truly helps to distinguish The Shining. While it works together with direct foreshadowing, subtle foreshadowing acts under the surface, building up a sense of unease that we can’t put our finger on. It trades the predictability of direct foreshadowing for a creeping anxiety that is only released in moments of revelation when the audience puts things together.

As the Torrance family arrives at the Overlook Hotel, for example, we catch a brief glimpse of the hedge maze from an aerial shot. This seemingly innocuous detail plants the seed of the maze’s significance as a symbol of the psychological labyrinth that will ensnare Jack Torrance and his family. But whereas Jack will become lost in the maze,, Danny will escape it. This is hinted at through the ease with which Danny navigates the labyrinth-like spaces of the hotel on his tricycle. The motif is re-iterated through the maze pattern on the carpets of the corridors.

Another example of subtle foreshadowing occurs when Danny’s mother takes the boy on a tour of the ground’s hedge maze, while inside the Overlook Hotel, Jack stoops over a model of the labyrinth, watching wickedly from above. Ironically the walk-through helps Danny to find his way out later when he is stalked by his axe-wielding father.

Jack himself is also the vehicle for plenty of foreshadowing: His slow descend into madness, for example, is hinted at by his repetitive typing of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” This mindless activity provides a snapshot of his unraveling psyche.

Additionally, during a conversation between Jack and Lloyd the bartender, Jack’s preference for bourbon on the rocks seems innocuous at first. However, it subtly hints at Jack’s impending lapse into alcoholism which had once caused him to break Danny’s arm while drunk. This vulnerability will later be exploited by the malevolent forces within the hotel.

Mirror mirror on the wall

The use of mirrors in cinema often points to fractured psyches and altered realities. Mirrors hint at the existence of worlds within worlds, worlds where horrors lurk beneath the normal and the ordinary. But what they reveal may also serve as a warning to those who are able to interpret them correctly through their ability to shine.

The eerie appearance of the twins to Danny at the start, serves to foreshadow the growing emergence of the supernatural forces at play within the hotel—setting the stage for the chilling events that will unfold.

Examples such as these, then, demonstrate the ability of foreshadowing, whether direct or subtle, to prepare audiences for forthcoming events.


Foreshadowing can be direct or indirect. Both add to story unity. Direct foreshadowing creates immediate anticipation, while indirect or subtle foreshadowing creates ah-ha moments later in the story where actions, objects or events suddenly snap into place.

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Foreshadowing in The Shining

How Stories Critique the Powerful

The Boys is a Critique the Rich and Powerful
The Boys is a Critique the Rich and Powerful

Determining the best episode of a TV show like The Boys is subjective and dependent on individual preferences. Season 2, Episode 8, titled What I Know, however, is in my opinion, one of the standout episodes of the season. But its real value lies less in its ability to entertain and more in the subtextual critique it levels against powerful individuals and corporations who seek to control us under the guise of looking after us.

The episode unveils several key events, including the revelation of Stormfront’s true identity and nefarious past, Butcher’s confrontation with Homelander, and Starlight’s decision to expose Vought’s corruption. More importantly, it delves into the universal themes of accountability, justice, and the consequences of unchecked power.

One of the chief lessons to be extracted from the subtext of What I Know, and from the series as a whole, is the importance of standing up against injustice and corruption in the face of overwhelming power. This is particularly pertinent today: As the world’s population becomes increasingly aware through the proliferation of social media channels, of government, corporate and individual corruption, shows such as The Boys become thinly-veiled instruments of critique and parody against unfettered power, and as such are worthy of study.

Characters like Starlight, Butcher, Hughie and others, demonstrate courage and resilience as they confront powerful individuals and corporations which are supported by politicians and state machinery, all of whom seek to control society for their own advantage. The hopeful message here is how the few can stand up against the tyranny of the powerful and the corrupt.

The What I Know episode suggests that individuals do indeed have the ability to make a difference, even in a world dominated by the most powerful superhumans. By taking a stand against the lies and coverups, Starlight, as a Supe herself, acts as a kind of moral compass, against coverups of excessive and violent actions. She demonstrates that morally centred individuals can challenge authority by attempting to reveal the truth behind the corruption, even though she may ultimately fail. Good can defeat evil, even if the good is often less than perfect in itself.

The broader irony here is that both the political Left and Right, in the real world, can point to narrative events in the series in order to critique their opposition. Huge pharmaceutical corporations tasked with saving lives in the face of global pandemics are food for parody here under the guise of compound V, as both sides of the political spectrum have argued for and against the efficacy of restrictive mandates, and the like.

Which brings us to the power and utility of accomplished storytelling: it contains a connotative layer underneath its external or denotative meaning, which allows it to speak across social, political, and historical boundaries, remaining relevant beyond specific moments in time.

Stories can be used as a Trojan Horse of critique, highlighting the corruption, lies and tyranny of the rich and powerful.

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The Art of the Hook: Crafting Compelling Stories!

How The Boys uses the hook
How The Boys uses the hook

Today, we’re learning about how to hook readers and audiences into stories, drawing from episodes from The Boys.

1: Immediate Intrigue

A strong hook doesn’t just grab attention; it sets the stage for the entire story. It grabs the audience’s attention from the very beginning, leaving them eager for more. In Season 1, Episode 1 the shocking death of Robin sets the tone for The Boys, instantly hooking viewers with its unexpected and tragic twist.

2: Unexpected Events

But it’s not just what happens in your story; it’s who it happens to that truly captivates your audience. Introduce unexpected events or revelations that challenge viewers’ expectations and drive curiosity. In Season 1, Episode 4 the revelation of the Nazi origins of Compound V, the Superhero juice, flips the superhero genre on its head, injecting fresh intrigue into the narrative and prompting viewers to question everything they thought they knew.

3: Character Introduction

Introduce compelling characters that resonate with audiences and compel them to invest in their journey. In Season 1, Episode 1 Hughie’s relatable struggle and tragic loss immediately draws viewers into his world, setting the emotional foundation for the series.

4: Tension Building

Tension is the lifeblood of storytelling, driving the narrative forward and keeping the audience engaged. Build tension early by establishing conflicts and obstacles that hint at larger confrontations to come. In Season 2, Episode 1 the escalating tensions between The Boys and The Seven create a palpable sense of anticipation, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats.

5: Moral Confusion

Incorporating moral complexity adds depth to your story, elevating it from mere entertainment to thought-provoking commentary. Explore the moral ambiguity and complexity in your own characters to challenge viewers’ perceptions and provoke thought. In Season 2, Episode 6 the revelation of Stormfront’s true nature forces viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about power and privilege, adding depth to the story and its characters.

6: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing hints at future events and developments, enticing viewers to stick around for what’s to come. In Season 1, Episode 6 the disappearance of Butcher’s wife foreshadows a larger conspiracy at play, teasing viewers with the promise of future revelations and twists.


Crafting compelling hooks is the key to drawing your audience into your story and keeping them invested until the very end.

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Who Speaks for the Superhero Genre?

The Boys and the Superhero Genre
The Boys and the Superhero Genre

Today, we’re looking into the world of the superhero, but not the kind of superhero we’re used to. I’m talking about The Boys, a series that has taken the genre by storm, unveiling a fresh and gritty take on the classic set of tropes.

  1. Deconstructing Superhero Tropes
    The Boys TV series succeeds where others fail partly because it intelligently deconstructs the stale superhero narratives we have grown bored with. At its core, the series examines the consequences of unfettered corporate and individual power protected by a relentless media campaign. It highlights the collateral damage that can be inflicted on society by powerful individuals who are driven by self-interest and narcissism, even to the point of murder: When the speedster hero A-Train accidentally kills Robin, Hughie’s girlfriend, it sets off a chain of events that exposes the art of the cover-up, the dark side of Vought International, and its pursuit of power at all costs.
  2. Complex Characters
    Unlike the one-dimensional heroes often portrayed in the stale superhero genre, the characters in The Boys are multi-layered and morally ambiguous. Take Homelander, the most powerful of all the Supes who leads the Seven, a select band of super beings created by Vaught International. Homelander presents himself as the epitome of American virtue hiding behind a winning smile, but in reality he harbours a fractured psyche, dark secrets, and a murderous streak. His shocking destruction of the Mayor of Baltimore’s private jet at the end of the first episode to stop the Mayor from exposing the truth behind Compound V, Vought International’s Supe-juice, sets the tone for the entire series. Homelander will stop at nothing to protect Vought and himself. Vought’s attempt to silence Hughie after the death of his girlfriend is further proof of that.
  3. Real-world Parallels
    But The Boys also resonates with audiences because of its exploration, through the lens of superhero fiction, of real-world issues. The Corporate influence on society is exposed early in the series through Vought International’s lack of sincerity, and its criminal attempts to protect its brand at all costs. This points to how huge corporations may prioritise profit over ethics in the real world.
  4. Emotional Depth
    While the series is filled with action-packed sequences, it is the emotional depth of the characters that truly sets it apart: Hughie’s grief and anger over Robin’s death, motivates him to seek justice against the corrupt superheroes. His journey to become one of The Boys is driving force behind the series, grounded in his relatable emotions and struggles.
  5. Satire and Dark Humour as Self-Critique
    The Boys doesn’t shy away from satirising the superhero genre, and pop-culture as a whole. We see this through the character of the Deep. His aquatic powers are no match for Homelander’s bullying, and his deviant, sexual infatuation with Timothy the octopus is an added source of embarrassment and ridicule.

Homelander’s complete dominance over the Deep is established early on, when he learns that he found scorch marks on the engine of the crashed plane and tells Stillwell. Homelander easily intimidates the Deep into silence.

  1. Grey Morality
    Finally, The Boys challenges the notion of a black-and-white morality often associated with the superhero genre. Indeed, the series as a whole explores the spectrum of moral dilemmas faced by supposedly good characters like Hughie and Butcher as they seek revenge against the Seven. Their actions blur the line between heroism and villainy, forcing us to question the traditional definition of good and evil.

The series has been renewed for a fourth season, and continues to subvert expectations to offer a darker, more nuanced take on the superhero genre. As a result The Boys has garnered a world-wide following which shows no sign of slowing down.

The Boys differs from the conventional superhero fare due to its intelligent deconstruction of old tropes, its use of complex characters, its real-world parallels, its emotional depth, its self-critique through dark humour and satire, and its mature exploration of moral ambiguity.

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The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey

The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey: Avengers: Endgame.
The Blockbuster and the Hero’s Journey.

Today, we will study the Hero’s Journey drawing from Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writers Journey, showing how the modern blockbuster exemplifies this timeless story structure. And what better way to do so than a recent box-office heavyweight champion, Avengers: Endgame.

  1. The Ordinary World

Our heroes begin in their ‘ordinary’ lives. In Endgame, this is the aftermath of the ‘Infinity War,’ where the remaining Avengers struggle with loss and failure. Indeed, Endgame kicks off weeks after Thanos’s devastation of the world. Our heroes, exist in an altered world. A World, of loss grief and despair.

In the Hero’s Journey, The Ordinary World, the first of Vogler’s’ twelve story beats, serves as the baseline, grounding the audience in the characters’ relatable struggles. In this modern blockbuster with its ensemble cast, the Hero’s traits and story beats are shared amongst several characters. For example, although The Refusal of the Call, and later, The Sacrifice belong to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, the idea of The Resurrection is symbolically rendered through Captain America’s passing his shield to Falcon at the end. And so on.

  1. The Call to Adventure

We know from the very start of the film that a huge disturbance has impacted the heroes’ lives. This challenges them to embark on a life-changing quest. This call is made explicit when Scott Lang (Ant-Man) escapes the Quantum Realm, proposing a solution to undo Thanos’ devastation.

  1. Refusal of the Call

Next comes doubt and hesitation. Tony Stark initially rejects the call, fearing the consequences to his family and the world. He vehemently argues against attempting time-travel. His reluctance adds depth, showcasing the inner struggle that heroes face.

  1. Meeting With The Mentor

Every hero needs guidance, and in Endgame, Tony Stark and Professor Hulk double up on their roles as the team’s mentors. Tony decides to accept the call to adventure after all, and devises the time travel concept, while Professor Hulk provides emotional support. The mentor’s role in a story is crucial, steering our heroes towards their destiny.

  1. Crossing the Threshold(s)

Here, the hero, or in this case, heroes, step into the unknown. In Endgame, this is symbolised by the quantum realm suits as the heroes prepare to venture into uncharted terrains, facing the mind-boggling risks of time travel. Crossing the Threshold represents leaving the comfort zone of the-world-as-they-know it behind.

  1. Tests, Allies, and Enemies

As the story progresses trials, alliances, and adversaries come to the fore. The time-heist comprises the central this part of the story. Each hero confronts personal challenges during his or her time-travelling endeavors. It’s important to remember that the tests are not just physical but also emotional, all of which serves to deepen the journey.

  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave

As the heroes approach their ultimate goal they prepare to face Thanos in the final battle. The Inmost Cave is in this case the destroyed Avengers HQ, setting the stage for the climax.

  1. The Ordeal

During the ordeal our heroes engage in their biggest test, resulting in the climactic battle with their enemy. Sacrifices are made, and some fall, but ultimately they triumph. The Ordeal is the crucible that forces heroes to reach beyond themselves in order to overcome the challenge they face.

  1. The Reward

The heroes reap the rewards of their journey. In Endgame, it’s the restoration of the fallen. The world is saved, and the remaining heroes find closure. The Reward is both triumphant and poignant, marking the end of the hero’s quest.

  1. The Road Back

The Road Back is a moment of reflection and transition, setting the stage for the final acts.

  1. Resurrection

Here, heroes undergo a final transformation. Captain America embodies this story beat, passing his shield to Falcon signifying the transferring of the mantle—itself a symbolic rebirth. The Resurrection symbolises the heroic group’s final evolution, in this case, the closing of the narrative loop.

  1. Return with the Elixir

Our heroes take up life in their ordinary world, bearing the lessons and changes earned through their journey. In Endgame, the elixir is the gift of a new era, represented, in part, by Falcon having taken up Captain America’s shield. The Elixir is the prize granted to the whole of humanity—the changed world gained through great effort and sacrifice.


The modern blockbuster draws its inspiration from the classical hero’s journey, effecting minor adaptations where necessary.

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The Brilliance of Subtext

Brilliant subtext in No Country for Old Men.
Brilliant subtext in No Country for Old Men.

Today, we’re studying the art of subtext by dissecting a scene from the film masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. This film, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a treasure chest of storytelling techniques, but one scene in particular stands out as a masterclass in the use of subtext.

The subtext of the coin-toss scene demonstrates how one’s destiny depends on random chance, much like the flip of a coin. Anton Chigurh, stops for petrol at an off-the-beaten path gas station, while in pursuit of stolen drug money. Let’s break down why this scene is a brilliant example of subtext mastery.

  1. The Coin-Toss as a Symbol: The use of the coin-toss symbolises the arbitrary nature of life and death. Chigurh‘s stop at the small shop/fuelling station is by random chance, but what ensues has potentially deadly consequences for the shopkeeper. The audience is captivated by the suspenseful coin flip, mirroring the unpredictability of life. The subtext lies in the power dynamics at play, where a simple coin flip becomes the arbiter of a man’s fate.
  2. Chigurh’s Unsettling Oddness: Anton Chigurh, brilliantly played by Javier Bardem, brings his unsettling presence to the scene. His lack of emotion amplifies the tension, creating an enigmatic figure whose actions are dictated by an internal code. This subtextual layer adds complexity to the narrative.
  3. Power Dynamics and Control: The subtext here is in the subtle power struggle between Chigurh and the shop owner—in the question and answer game and the implied threat in Chigurh’s tone. The coin-toss becomes a metaphor for the larger power dynamics at play, illustrating how control can be deceptively veiled. The audience is left on edge as they witness the fragility of human agency in the face of an unstoppable force.
  4. An Undercurrent of Existential Dread: As the shop keeper begins to comprehend the gravity of the situation, the subtext evolves into a chilling exploration of existential dread. The scene forces us to confront the inevitability of mortality and the fragility of our existence. Every word and action is layered with profound meaning, leaving the audience with a lingering sense of unease.
  5. Minimalism and Silence: The power of this subtext is amplified by the Coen Brothers’ deliberate use of minimalism and silence. The scarcity of words enhances the impact of every gesture and expression, creating a palpable tension that grips the viewer. The audience is left hanging on every nuance, deciphering the unsaid through the artful interplay of visuals and sounds.

The coin-toss scene, then, stands as a testament to the power of subtext in storytelling. The use of a simple coin-toss becomes a metaphorical event upon which the fate of a character balances, laden with layers of meaning. As writers, we can draw inspiration from the meticulous craftsmanship of this scene, learning how to weave subtext into our stories with precision and purpose.


The coin-toss scene in No Country for Old Men is a testament to the power of subtext in storytelling.

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The end of an era.

Tony Soprano
Tony Soprano: the prototypical antihero.

Today, we examine the intense but subtly-crafted family dinner scene from the last season of The Sopranos, a scene that caps the looming threat of assassination hovering over Tony Soprano.

This iconic scene has much to teach us about the art crafting an almost unbearable sense of the trepidation through context, subtle cues, camera placement, timing and nuanced performances. It is proof of why we should study masterpieces, especially when compared to much of today’s fare

1. Backstory

Before we dive into the dinner scene, let’s set the stage. The events leading up to this moment have been filled with tension. The news that Tony has visited a psychiatrist, has weakened his position with the mob who frowns on such things. Tony and the families are at loggerheads, his leadership with his own people is shaky—members of his crew have been shot—notably Silvio, his consigliere, mobsters are turning State’s evidence, a hit has been put out on Tony himself, and the FBI is closing in, using wire-taps. There is a sense that an era is coming to an end.

Now, let’s focus in on the dinner scene itself.

2. Creating an Uneasy Atmosphere

Even before the family gathers at the restaurant, then, the atmosphere is charged with tension. Tony arrives alone, which emphasises his isolation. Moments later he is joined by his wife. As they wait for their children to join them our anxiety grows. There is a jingle at the door and his son enters. Then we see Meadow pull up in her car outside the restaurant. As she struggles to park the vehicle our unease increases: All this waiting seems to imply that something bad is about to happen.

The camera work and framing, too, heighten our sense of discomfort. Long, lingering shots on the characters’ faces and the careful choreography of their movements keeps us on edge.

Tony’s glances towards the entrance every time someone enters, too, contribute to the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold. We become acutely aware that the sanctuary of family is no refuge from the ever-present threat to Tony’s life.

3. Vulnerability Through Setting

The very act of siting down to eat with his family in a public place, unarmed and exposed, creates a visceral sense of vulnerability: Meal time is when families are at their most relaxed, when their guard is down. Here, however, it brings to mind the many assassinations we have heard about, or watched in documentaries, or in films and TV series, such as when Joe Gallo was shot dead at Umbertos Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1972, or when Carmine Galante was killed in 1979 while having lunch at Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant, and of course the shocking assassination scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey. This awareness augments our feeling of unease.

4. Potential Threats from Patrons

Adding another layer to the tension is the very presence of the patrons at the restaurant, anyone of whom may pose a threat to Tony. Their very presence and proximity to Tony becomes a source of anxiety both for Tony and for the audience. When one of the patrons goes to the men’s room we are reminded of how Michael Corleone retrieved the gun from the men’s room that he was to use to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey.

Specific incidents, such as a seemingly innocent conversation or a lingering look, take on a heightened significance. Viewers are left to decipher the true intentions behind these interactions, amplifying the suspense as we question who may be plotting against Tony. The dinner scene transforms into a psychological battlefield, with every gesture and word hinting at a potential danger, whether real or imagined.

And so we are left hanging on the edge of uncertainty. The meticulously crafted tension, the symbolic undertones, and the enigmatic presence of potential threats create a narrative powder keg.

The culmination of the final episode, then, masterfully uses the family restaurant setting to create a sense of doom that keeps us guessing. The screen going black just as Meadow is finally about to enter the restaurant symbolises our worst fears.


The Sopranos culminates in a final scene that creates a feeling of impending doom by creating a sense of vulnerability, unease, and evokeing the death of an era. We feel that Tony’s life, perhaps even that of his family’s, is over. That it does so without showing his murder speaks to the craft and subtlety of the writers.

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The Making of an Antihero

The Sopranos is an antihero template
The Sopranos is an antihero template.

Today, we continue our exciting journey into the world of television, focusing on the iconic character who helped to define the Antihero genre – Tony Soprano.

The Sopranos, a groundbreaking series that premiered in 1999, introduces us to Tony Soprano, a mob boss struggling with the complications of his life. In the first episode, aptly titled The Sopranos, we’re immediately thrust into a world that has come to define the antihero.

Before we peel back the layers of Tony’s character, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that The Sopranos has had in the television landscape. The show’s success paved the way for characters like Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Mad Men’s Don Draper by creating a stage for morally ambiguous protagonists who audiences love despite their flaws. Tony Soprano, with his complexities, vulnerabilities and contradictions, sets the standard for what it means to be an antihero.

From the pilot episode, we’re drawn to moments where Tony reveals a range of feelings—moments of fear, gentleness and sensitivity. His enthusiasm over the ducks in his pool, for example, is a metaphor for family, and the importance he places in it.

His down-to-earth demeanour evidenced in his mannerisms, in his clothing—or lack of it, and his enjoyment of sharing meals with family and friends contrast sharply with his brutal practices as a mob boss.

His struggle with anxiety and his panic attacks, too, are associated more with a character who has suffered cruelty and brutality at the hands of others, than with a man who has chosen crime for its on sake. Indeed, Tony’s vulnerability revealed in his sessions with Dr. Melfi provides a stark contrast to the hardened exterior we expect to find in a mob boss. During a therapy session, for example, Tony discusses his mother’s manipulative behaviour. This scene not only highlights his vulnerability but also foreshadows the internal conflicts that will define his character throughout the series. All of this goes some way into making his character more empathetic.

Let’s examine five characteristics that contribute to our fascination with this complex character in a little more detail .

1. Human Vulnerability

In the first episode, we witness Tony grappling with anxiety attacks. His vulnerability makes him relatable, creating a sense of empathy in the viewer. Even when he tries to hide, behind false bravado, the anxiety that his real job has brought about from Dr. Melfi, we see a side of him that transcends the typical mob boss stereotype.

2. Family Dynamics

Tony’s interactions with his family, particularly with his children, showcase a genuine desire for connection. The juxtaposition of his role as a father and a mob boss adds layers to his character, making us sympathise with the challenges he faces in maintaining a semblance of normalcy.

3. Sense of selective Morality

Surprisingly, Tony does possess a kind of moral compass. In the first episode, he confesses to Dr Melfi that he has qualms about how he earns his living. He tells her he feels like a sad clown—laughing in the outside, crying on the inside. This dimension adds depth to his character, challenging the traditional portrayal of mob bosses as being completely devoid of ethics.

4. Relatability through Struggle

Tony’s constant struggle to balance the demands of his criminal life with the desire for a more conventional existence resonates with us. His yearning for a sense of normality mirrors a struggle we all experience one way or another. This draws us into his world despite its criminal underpinnings.

5. Complex Relationships

The intricate web of relationships that Tony navigates, at home and at work, adds to the complexity: Dealing with his manipulative mother or managing the expectations of his crew, reveal his multifaceted nature.

The Sopranos, then, has not only helped to define the antihero genre, it has also set the standard for character complexity and narrative depth, too. As writers, we can draw inspiration from Tony’s character to help us create protagonists that challenge the run-of-the-mill stereotypes by regulating the complex tension between likability and moral ambiguity.


Even the darkest characters can inspire storytelling brilliance. The trick is to show their internal and external struggles in a way that provides glimpses into their humanity.

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