If you're like me, you think movies and TV are the culmination of the human artistic process. That means all of the work we've put in for thousands of years has led us to this place, where moving images provide us with a wide array of emotions and experiences.
We layered these things with subtext. Yes, that word means the words we don't say or hear. But it's super important to help you get the themes of your screenplay and to layer in your point of view.
But what exactly is subtext? What's the definition, what are some examples, and how does it help convey the story you intend?
Today we're going to go over what the subtext is in film and how you can make sure your work has it.
Sound good? Let's get started.
Quentin Tarantino in 'Pulp Fiction'Credit: Miramax Films
What Is Subtext in Film and TV? Definition and Examples
What's your favorite movie? Is it about what's on the surface, or is there more to the picture? The details here matter. It's what gets loaded into the script by the writer and loaded into the movie by the director, editor, and cinematographer.
So let's dig into the definition of subtext.
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 speaking about something else.
If you're having trouble picturing the word even after the definition, maybe these synonyms will help.
'Chinatown'Credit: Paramount Pictures
When Subtext Is Useful
Subtext 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.
Sure they have moments where they explode and say it all, but those moments only work if there's subtext to the struggles and conversations we've seen them encounter during the production.
So, what lies beneath the character and their actions?
What do they really think and feel as they talk about something else?
'No Country For Old Men'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Examples of Subtext in Dialogue
Easily the best example I could think of off the top of my head was the coin toss scene in No Country For Old Men.
"What's the most you've ever lost in a coin toss?" Anton Chigurh asks in the iconic scene.
For those who have seen the movie, there's a particular scene that stands out against all others. One we all come back to. And it's that of the coin toss in the gas station. For me, this scene perfectly distills what makes this movie a classic. It distills the movie down to the choices we make that bring us closer to life, or closer to death.
It's a scene that embodies the two points of view within the story. It asks the question, "Is the world going to an evil place where only God can save it, or was the world so bad from the start that nothing and no one can save it?"
These questions solidify the script's theme of those life-and-death choices. The coin is subtext for living and dying. And the dialogue asks the man to pick life or death, even if he's not sure about it.
There's another great use of subtext in dialogue in Rear Window, then the character of LB Jeffries debates whether or not his girlfriend, Lisa, could handle his life as a photographer, jet-setting all over to get dangerous shots. In it, she says she can't handle the idea of living out of one suitcase. But that's really subtext for him not being able to handle the idea of being tied down to one woman.
One of the most popular kinds of subtext is romantic subtext. These plots feature one or more main couples who are romantically interested in one another. This romance will drive the narrative forward.
These are not always dating couples. It can also be subtext of romance between the protagonist and antagonist. Basically, this is any romance between any of the characters. It could even be a couple who has a best friend, or third wheel. And there is a romantic subtext showing all three should be together.
Like in Pretty in Pink, when Ducky seems left out but has the romantic subtext of actually being a part of it all. Or in The Favourite, when women are all sharing the same powerful lover.
'The Power of the Dog'Credit: Netflix
Subtext is really valuable when it comes to talking about things that might be sensitive. Back in the day of the Hays Code and when people were a little more closed-minded, you were not really allowed to have LGBTQ+ characters in movies. That meant gay subtext was all over Hollywood.
It was layered into movies so they could still have wide releases, and also still emotionally affect people.
One of the most famous was Rebel Without a Cause, which suggests Jim and Plato’s friendship isn’t platonic, but a romantic one. This was done specifically by director Nicholas Ray. There was even a kiss between them in the movie that the Hays Code authorities made them remove.
Another movie from this time with gay subtext is Ben Hur. This 1959 epic was directed by William Wyler but got an uncredited rewrite from Gore Vidal. He added layers to the story of Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). Vidal said in an interview, “I proposed the notion that the two had been adolescent lovers and now Messala has returned from Rome wanting to revive the love affair but Ben-Hur does not.”
This subtext was only told to Stephen Boyd, who was warned never to tell Heston. He played one-sided love while Heston played someone ignorant to it, giving the effect that he was over it.
One of the main areas of subtextual conversation is whether or not there's a gay subtext in Top Gun.
Top Gun Gay Subtext
When the movie was released, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The movie is a shiny homoerotic commercial: the pilots strut around the locker room, towels hanging precariously from their waists.” And that seemed to be the beginning of the conversation of gay subtext in Top Gun.
I think the idea about Top Gun being a "gay" movie came to pop culture in the movie Sleep with Me. There's a scene, written by Roger Avary, where a character played by Quentin Tarantino rants about gay subtext in Top Gun.
This rant became so famous that producer Jerry Bruckheimer actually addressed it, saying "When you make a movie, people can interpret it in any way they want and see something in it that filmmakers had no idea they were tapping."
Other Subtext Examples
The opening scene of The Godfather is laden with subtextual examples. From the opening lines of, "I believe in America," we begin to understand that this is a movie about the American dream. In the opening scene, we hear a speech.
Not only do we get subtext about what it's like to be an immigrant in America, but we also understand the mafia's role in the community, and how they take care of these immigrants. We're informed about the roles of the people in the scene as well.
We know the person off-screen is someone you go to when you need something. You know they have power. But you also know our character was afraid to go to them before. They went to the police instead.
We start with so much subtext, that the story feels palpable before we even really begin. And the cinematography really helps with that.
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.
'The Godfather'Credit: Paramount Pictures
Summing Up "What is Subtext in Film and TV? Definition and Examples"
Now that you can read between the lines, it's time to put your work into practice. Can you add another layer to your characters? Anything you can boost in dialogue or themes?
So much of what we're talking about on No Film School when it comes to screenwriting is summarized in our eBook. Check that out. Start the script, and add the subtext later.
What are some of your favorite subtext samples in cinema? Let us know in the comments.