These aren't your granddaddy's subliminal messages.
When we talk about subtext, we're talking about something else entirely. Just kidding, we are actually talking about subtext... but the subtext is referring to something else. Did I confuse you?
Now you'll have to read the rest of the post and then maybe you'll get it.
I know we have talked about this topic before, but I was watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof yesterday night and paid attention—like really paid attention this time—and did you know Paul Newman is upset the whole time because his boyfriend killed himself!? And that he can't have sex with his wife because he's gay and she knows it, and he knows it, and both of them have no idea how to move on with this fact!
They never come out and say it, but this subtextual relationship is there and it's so beautiful... and damning due to the homophobia and hate rooted in the deep South at the time (and now).
As you can see, subtext can be a really powerful storytelling tool. So, let's talk about how you can amp up the subtextual intensity in your own story.
Learn How to Supercharge Subtext Into Your Screenplay
Subtext is the content of an idea or feeling that is not highlighted explicitly by the characters, but is implicit or becomes understood by the viewer as the story unfolds. It's what people are really talking about when they're actually speaking about something else.
It keeps your dialogue from being too on the nose. On-the-nose dialogue is when characters just say exactly how they feel. That stuff gets boring and it shows a lack of depth. Remember in the opener when I shamed you for not saying what you mean? Well, characters are supposed to be a reflection of us.
So, how can we use it wisely?
The key lies within Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Here's a movie about an ex-football star. Someone so good he could play professionally. His name is Brick. Now, he's an alcoholic using booze as a crutch to get through the day and needing a literal crutch to walk after a drunken fall trying to be the man he used to be.
His wife, Maggie, is incredibly beautiful. But she can't have children. She wants a family and a life with her husband, but she's not sure if he can't or won't provide her with one. To make matters worse, Brick's best friend Skip has killed himself, sending Brick into a depression he may never leave.
Why? Because he and Brick were lovers and he felt so guilty for breaking up their marriage that he kills himself.
Maggie is on the brink is losing it.
But she never says any of this out loud, not really, instead they talk about other things. They use metaphors, like when Maggie says, "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? Just staying on it, I guess. Long as she can.”
They beat around the bush, showing kids always interrupting them and his refusing to have sex with her the moment they are alone. They talk about anything but their exact problem.
But we as the audience pick up clues along the way. They use plant and pay off to give us details about the relationship. We put those pieces together and come up with the real story of what's going on here.
So when it's time for you to write, outline the conversation you don't want the characters to have: the explicit conversation that never needs to come to a head, but the one you know they are really having inside their hearts.
This outline will help you pepper in the clues of the situation and also build subtext into the story you're writing.
What movies have the best subtext?
Let us know in the comments.
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