I just can’t stop talking about the necessity of becoming absolute masters of subtext. Dialogue that ripples with subtext jumps right out of the page and declares to the reader—I am an accomplished writer. Keep reading.
If direct dialogue tells us about the literal meaning of the words—their denotation—subtext reveals the meaning behind the words—their connotation. Subtext is a far more engaging way of having the character reveal information because it lets the reader or audience into a secret, or at least, into the deeper layer of meaning that makes them feel more connected to the characters and the story. It does not spoon-feed the reader, as would direct dialogue.
“Masters of subtext stand out from the crowd. They are consummate writers of dramatic speech.”
There are many ways to write subtext, one of the most important being The Cover-Up. It may use a change of subject, a lie, a misdirection, a question, a threat, and the like, to achieve its goal. These techniques occur downstream, but first let me remind everyone that there are three chief areas to any dramatic text: 1. direct text, 2. its deeper meaning, and 3. when this meaning is to be conveyed to the reader or audience.
In As good as it Gets, we see Melvyn, who despises dogs, put the neighbour’s animal down the garbage chute in the hallway outside his apartment. We should note that the subtext can be (1) revealed before the actual subtext dialogue occurs, (2) during or (3) after the dialogue. Notice that here we already know that Melvyn has done the deed before the exchange with his neighbour, so we experience it as a Cover-Up.
INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY – NIGHT
SIMON, the dog’s owner, rushes down the hall just as Melvyn is about to enter his apartment.
SIMON: Verdell? Here, good doggie…
He notices Melvyn at the end of the hall.
SIMON: Mr Udhall…excuse me. Hey there! Have you seen Verdell?
MELVYN: What’s he look like?
Here, Melvyn uses the technique of The Cover-Up by asking a question. But since we already know that he has stuffed the dog down the chute we know that he is lying. To spell it out: Melvyn’s denotation is: ‘What’s he look like’, feigning engagement. But the actual meaning is: ‘I got rid of your dog and I’ll lie so as not to get caught.’
Imagine if the scene had started with Simon looking for his dog. Melvyn’s question about what the dog looks like would then appear as if he was being helpful. When the truth was revealed later that Melvyn did indeed do it, the subtext would arise introspectively. Both instances would involve subtext, but the former is perhaps stronger because it occurs at the present moment. But that is something for you to decide in each particular instance.
SIMON: My dog…you know, I mean my little dog with the adorable face… Don’t you know what my dog looks like?
MELVYN: I got it. You’re talking about your dog. I thought that was the name of the colored man I’ve been seeing in the hall.
Again, because we know that Melvyn is the culprit, we experience the deception more acutely—every line promotes the Cover-Up, which demonstrates the sort of man he is. In other words, we learn far more about his character from the subtext than direct, denotative speech could reveal. Such is its power.
Masters of subtext – the sure sign of the accomplished writers. Study its various techniques until you master them fully.