Beyond Dialogue Subtext

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  • Beyond Dialogue Subtext

    Dialogue is one of my major remaining weaknesses. One of my 2011 intentions is to write better dialogue.

    Subtext isn't the only important element in great screenplay dialogue, yet we in this forum continue to devote innumerable threads to subtext and to on-the-nose dialogue.

    Hey, it's as if all we have to do is infuse our dialogue with subtext and eliminate on-the-nose passages to write great dialogue.

    Must every line of dialogue contain subtext?

    I don't Know if every line must contain subtext. I do know great dialogue should serve the story in addition to containing subtext.

    How can we convey character, move the story forward, and entertain the reader/audience with great dialogue? What do we mean by "convey character", "move the story forward", and "entertain"?

    Just trying to get an early start on the New Year.

  • #2
    Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

    People talk about doing passes where they add subtext. Maybe that works, but I've never done it and people seem to really like the dialogue on this last draft. EvlRbt rated it quite high.

    I think you just need to make sure that there's conflict in each scene and each character is well motivated to say what they're saying. That, and you need to avoid cliches.
    QUESTICLES -- It's about balls on a mission.

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    • #3
      Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

      there definitely other tools and techniques to consider.
      i'll share two that i use regularly:

      sometimes two people in a scene are not in the same place mentally. one is thinking about whatever is happening at that moment and the other one is drifting into another area of thought... maybe they're still lingering on or coming from a previous scene. i would have a conversation between two people. they're talking to each other but neither one of them are talking about the same thing. they go on little tangents and then maybe come back to a meeting of the minds in the end of the scene.

      sometimes i pre-cast a character and give a well known actor the part. then i write their dialogue as if that "distinctive character" actor is speaking those lines. this will give them a distinctive voice. ie - imagine how cool you guy could be if samuel jackson had that role? or how bubbly she's be if drew barrymore played the part? or how witty, verbose, and self-loathing he'd be if woody allen was the man?

      i'd be interested to know what other techniques (besides subtext, of course) people use for dialogue.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

        Don't over think this sh!t. When people get the "on the nose" note, what it really means is bad. All movies are filled with on the nose dialogue but if the dialogue is good, then no one cares.

        Really, for most writers, dialogue is the easiest thing.

        As far as subext, again, don't over think it. Your subtext will be there if you've done the work on the characters. Just write the dialogue--just write what your characters want you to say. If you're having problems with that, then, in my opinion, your characters lack a strong pov.

        Let's say you have two characters standing in front of an elevator. One of the characters, JIM, is terrified of heights. He's terrified of heights because his dad used to make him throw puppies off the top of his town's tallest buildings. The other character is BILL THE ASSASSIN. He's jamming a gun in Jim's back, telling him to get on an elevator.

        EXT. ELEVATOR BANK

        The bill dings. Elevator doors open. Bill jabs Jim in the back, 'get on.'

        JIM "I'm not getting on that elevator."

        BILL "You'd better get on."

        JIM "I don't care if you kill me, I'm not getting on."

        And so on...

        If the audience doesn't know about Jim's backstory, there's subtext in that lame scene. It's not magical, it's not nearly as sexy as when you hear a writer talk about, it's just what's going on inside your character.

        The audience only knows that one dude is willing to die before getting on an elevator. Obviously, they're gonna wanna know why. The fact that Jim refuses to get on speaks to something unsaid and unseen.

        People have to stop over thinking their writing. Especially early in your careers, especially in early drafts. In rewrites you can get all deep and focus on theme and subtext but don't worry about that sh!t most of the time.

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

          BDZ is right (though his example isn't really a great one to show subtext) that subtext isn't really something you can go in and "add". It's there or it isn't. Take:

          GIRL
          Weather forecast is for dense fog.

          VAMPIRE
          Nice forecast.

          The subtext in the Vampire's line is "It's good that there won't be any sun out today, so I will not liquefy."

          To your original question, no, not every line must contain subtext, and subtext is only one element of good dialogue. There's all kinds of ways to connote character and advance the story using dialogue. How you choose to apply the elements of dialogue (subtext, vocabulary, eloquence or lack of, grammar or lack of, wit, etc.) is what defines your 'voice'.

          It can't really be taught, IMO.
          ==========

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

            This will be my ahole answer, but the Jan issue of Script has part 2 of an article on dialogue carried over from the last issue.

            Dialogue should be character specific - not every single line, but you should be able to tell who is speaking from the way they say it.

            If the dialogue has nothing to do with the story, what's it doing in the script? That doesn't mean you have huge story exposition dumps, it means the dialogue adds to the story instead of being a bunch of filler material.

            Entertaining - hey, if there's a dull way to say something and an interesting way, use the interesting way. Movie dialogue needs to be the stuff you think of the day after the argument. The good stuff, not the bland stuff. Sometimes this is a function of the dramatic situation - a line that might read bland out of context is a killer line in context.

            The thing about dialogue is that you play with it and work with it and try to make it shine. If the same handful of words can have more than one meaning - those are the words you want. If there are two ways to say something and one is bland and the other is clever - be clever (unless your character is supposed to be a moron).

            I think good dialogue often comes down to knowing your characters - really knowing them. If I can hear their unique voices in my head, I can just take dictation.

            - Bill
            Free Script Tips:
            http://www.scriptsecrets.net

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            • #7
              Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

              Not an ahole answer, Bill. I'll read that article.

              Many good points made by everyone. Sheds light on why I'm having trouble with dialogue. I'm beginning to see how I can attack the problem in rewrite once I finish the first draft.

              Any examples from anyone's own work, where you rewrote the dialogue in a scene after the first draft to either better serve the story or for any other reasons?

              Any examples of dialogue in produced (yours or other writer's) scripts where subtext was NOT present in an important scene?

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                Here's the clearest example of subtext.

                JONPIPER
                Must every line of dialogue contain subtext?


                Subtext: this protagonist doesn't fully grasp his character's wants and needs. What he needs help with is a clearer understanding of his main character's external goals and internal goals. And by understanding this, he'll understand the depth of each character and be transcribing what his characters say. But right now, he doesn't understand his characters. So every line of dialogue seems like forced exposition a.k.a. on-the-nose.
                Hamboogul
                Member
                Last edited by Hamboogul; 12-29-2010, 03:31 PM. Reason: a typo.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                  Originally posted by jonpiper View Post
                  Dialogue is one of my major remaining weaknesses. One of my 2011 intentions is to write better dialogue.

                  Subtext isn't the only important element in great screenplay dialogue, yet we in this forum continue to devote innumerable threads to subtext and to on-the-nose dialogue.

                  Hey, it's as if all we have to do is infuse our dialogue with subtext and eliminate on-the-nose passages to write great dialogue.

                  Must every line of dialogue contain subtext?

                  I don't Know if every line must contain subtext. I do know great dialogue should serve the story in addition to containing subtext.

                  How can we convey character, move the story forward, and entertain the reader/audience with great dialogue? What do we mean by "convey character", "move the story forward", and "entertain"?

                  Just trying to get an early start on the New Year.
                  I think subtext gets a lot of attention because good subtext shows that the writer knows who the characters are and how they'll react to a situation. Again, I love the opening scene of The Social Network because you can see what's happening in each character's head.

                  Opening Scene

                  Put in different characters, even with the same scene goal, and the clip completely changes.
                  what the head makes cloudy the heart makes very clear

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                    een though there's probably dialogue threads dating back to when the forum first started, i never get tired of this topic because dialogue is my weak point too. it's always interesting to see other people's ideas, comments and suggestions on it. seems like i pick something up different everytime.
                    One must be fearless and tenacious when pursuing their dreams. If you don't, regret will be your reward.

                    The Fiction Story Room

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                      Originally posted by Hasil Adkins View Post
                      BDZ is right (though his example isn't really a great one to show subtext) that subtext isn't really something you can go in and "add". It's there or it isn't.
                      My bet is that when people are getting these dialogue notes the the translation is:

                      A)"your dialogue is on the nose" = "your dialogue is bad"

                      B) "your dialogue lacks subtext" = "there's not enough going on in your scenes."

                      I don't think anyone expects people to go through and add "subtext" with the dimension that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson has in a given scene, they just want to have scenes where each character walks in with distinct point of view that affects the scene.

                      Again, I believe that "subtext" in holllywood means factors unsaid and/or unseen that are at play in a given scene. To get that, you need to build your characters out.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                        My money's on

                        Originally posted by Kwinnky View Post
                        I think subtext gets a lot of attention because good subtext shows that the writer knows who the characters are and how they'll react to a situation.
                        and

                        Originally posted by wcmartell
                        I think good dialogue often comes down to knowing your characters - really knowing them.
                        That's really what it comes down to because what's distinct about a character leads to what's distinct about their dialog. Even when ordinary people take part in an ordinary discussion they have a perspective and an agenda, and those reflect the person's background and their immediate situation.

                        The same holds true for characters. They have a background which gives them certain predispositions and behavioral characteristics, and they have a situation which gives them a current agenda or purpose. Good dialogue always reflects those two elements both in what the person says and how they say it. And like real life, the most memorable conversations are those in which we hear the unexpected.

                        I just remembered one of my favorite scenes. In the wrong hands it would have been boring exposition, but when Randall Patrick McMurphy meets Dr. Spivey in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, the exchange is brilliant and while it's probably the most 'passive' scene in the movie, it sets up the entire conflict between McMurphy and the institution represented by Spivey. It's nearly all subtext.
                        "Friends make the worst enemies." Frank Underwood

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                          Originally posted by BattleDolphinZero View Post
                          I don't think anyone expects people to go through and add "subtext" with the dimension that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson has in a given scene, they just want to have scenes where each character walks in with distinct point of view that affects the scene.

                          Again, I believe that "subtext" in holllywood means factors unsaid and/or unseen that are at play in a given scene. To get that, you need to build your characters out.
                          And that. Subtext is integral, or a nuance, not something that's 'attached' to dialogue. I agree that subtext means a range of things. For example when a character says something the audience knows is false or deceptive. Or expresses anger about something which isn't the thing that's making them angry, or something that's avoided or not said, perhaps a suppressed reaction, eye contact or avoidance, a shift in posture. I guess what writers need is to have insight into all this and know how to elicit it without directing on the page and without over-writing.

                          The biggest trap is to write dialogue for the plot and to overlook writing for the psychology of the character. One solution is to remember the character isn't thinking about the plot. As well as an overall objective, the character has an immediate purpose related to the scene, they are in a particular mood/mindset with a particular emotional disposition, and that's what generates their dialogue in context with the role of the other character(s) in the scene. If that makes sense...
                          "Friends make the worst enemies." Frank Underwood

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                            Originally posted by Hamboogul View Post
                            Here's the clearest example of subtext.

                            JONPIPER
                            Must every line of dialogue contain subtext?


                            Subtext: this protagonist doesn't fully grasp his character's wants and needs. What he needs help with is a clearer understanding of his main character's external goals and internal goals. And by understanding this, he'll understand the depth of each character and be transcribing what his characters say. But right now, he doesn't understand his characters. So every line of dialogue seems like forced exposition a.k.a. on-the-nose.
                            Hamboogul, I usually understand what you are getting at, but I cannot wrap my mind around the above post. Could you, or anyone else, clarify. Seriously.

                            Originally posted by Kwinnky View Post
                            I think subtext gets a lot of attention because good subtext shows that the writer knows who the characters are and how they'll react to a situation. Again, I love the opening scene of The Social Network because you can see what's happening in each character's head.

                            Opening Scene

                            Put in different characters, even with the same scene goal, and the clip completely changes.
                            Kwinnky, thanks for that example. It really has gotten a lot of buzz.

                            That opening five minute pure dialogue scene will probably become a classic. Closeup, with no action, it engages the audience and gets the story off with a bang. It certainly conveys character, moves the story forward, and entertains. It sets the pace and mood of the movie.

                            But honestly, from my clouded perspective, I saw little if any subtext in the exchange. Perhaps I cannot recognize the subtext.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: Beyond Dialogue Subtext

                              Originally posted by jonpiper View Post
                              Perhaps I cannot recognize the subtext.
                              Perhaps. The entire first part of that scene is subtext. They're talking about China, and they're talking about geniuses and they're talking about crew, and the clubs. That's the TEXT of the scene. The SUBTEXT is:

                              I'm not you're girlfriend anymore.

                              Are you serious?

                              Yes.
                              Or, to put it another way:

                              Originally posted by BattleDolphinZero View Post
                              "subtext" in holllywood means factors unsaid and/or unseen that are at play in a given scene.
                              ==========

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