Defining Subtext

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  • Defining Subtext

    I've heard subtext referred to as hidden meanings, double meanings and things unspoken and was wondering if we could get some consensus here as I'm not too sure just exactly what constitutes subtext. Thanks.

  • #2
    Re: Defining Subtext

    This is the best definition of subtext I've been able to find and usually what I refer to when I need a better sense of the word.

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    • #3
      Re: Defining Subtext

      Awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!


      Apart from the fact I was hoping to start a discussion and get involvement from people who aren't currently pickling themsleves in piss and vingear.

      To anyone else (if there's anyone else) who'd like to participate do you see subtext as linked to theme? Many a theme is not explicitly stated or is handled by way of metaphor - does this constitute as subtext to you? Is subtext purely dialogue specific?

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      • #4
        Re: Defining Subtext

        I think the very word describes it well: Sub-Text. What's being said beneath the dialogue and actions. It's a window into what the characters in a scene really want.
        what the head makes cloudy the heart makes very clear

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        • #5
          Re: Defining Subtext

          Originally posted by jcgary View Post
          This is the best definition of subtext I've been able to find and usually what I refer to when I need a better sense of the word.

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          • #6
            Re: Defining Subtext

            So it could be as simple as a male character telling a female character "I hate you". When he really means I love you.

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            • #7
              Re: Defining Subtext

              Originally posted by jcgary View Post
              This is the best definition of subtext I've been able to find and usually what I refer to when I need a better sense of the word.
              What are you really saying?

              So it could be as simple as a male character telling a female character "I hate you". When he really means I love you.
              Yes.
              #writinginaStarbucks #re-thinkingmyexistence #notanotherweaklogline #thinkingwhatwouldWilldo

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              • #8
                Re: Defining Subtext

                Originally posted by SundownInRetreat View Post
                Awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!


                Apart from the fact I was hoping to start a discussion and get involvement from people who aren't currently pickling themsleves in piss and vingear.

                To anyone else (if there's anyone else) who'd like to participate do you see subtext as linked to theme? Many a theme is not explicitly stated or is handled by way of metaphor - does this constitute as subtext to you? Is subtext purely dialogue specific?
                Dialogue from Double Indemnity:

                http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036775/quotes?qt=qt0480121

                Action example from Godfather Part II

                Michael Corleone kissing Fredo.
                #writinginaStarbucks #re-thinkingmyexistence #notanotherweaklogline #thinkingwhatwouldWilldo

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Defining Subtext

                  No, it's more so a character saying or doing one thing, but meaning something else or using the current situation to talk about something they aren't game to discuss straight up.

                  Imagine a scene where a man and a woman are sitting in bed after sex and discussing the results of a baseball game on the TV.

                  The woman isn't happy with the 30 second performance her hubby just put in, but he clearly thinks he brought his A game.

                  MAN
                  Boy, how good are those Mets?

                  WOMAN
                  They're OK.

                  MAN
                  OK? -- No way. They knocked
                  that game outta the park.

                  WOMAN
                  But that's their problem. They start
                  off strong, but just when things are
                  getting warmed up, they're spent.
                  They need to take things slow and
                  not place so much effort on only
                  getting to the finals -- Maybe if they
                  payed more attention to the other team...

                  The Man shrugs. He lights up a cigarette and takes a deep drag.

                  MAN
                  Whatever. They'll be awesome next
                  game, you watch.

                  WOMAN
                  Yeah. That's what I hoped last week.

                  It's rough, I'm strapped for time right now, but you should get the idea.

                  Good Luck.

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                  • #10
                    Re: Defining Subtext

                    Originally posted by one seven spectrum View Post
                    No, it's more so a character saying or doing one thing, but meaning something else or using the current situation to talk about something they aren't game to discuss straight up.

                    Imagine a scene where a man and a woman are sitting in bed after sex and discussing the results of a baseball game on the TV.

                    The woman isn't happy with the 30 second performance her hubby just put in, but he clearly thinks he brought his A game.

                    MAN
                    Boy, how good are those Mets?

                    WOMAN
                    They're OK.

                    MAN
                    OK? -- No way. They knocked
                    that game outta the park.

                    WOMAN
                    But that's their problem. They start
                    off strong, but just when things are
                    getting warmed up, they're spent.
                    They need to take things slow and
                    not place so much effort on only
                    getting to the finals -- Maybe if they
                    payed more attention to the other team...

                    The Man shrugs. He lights up a cigarette and takes a deep drag.

                    MAN
                    Whatever. They'll be awesome next
                    game, you watch.

                    WOMAN
                    Yeah. That's what I hoped last week.

                    It's rough, I'm strapped for time right now, but you should get the idea. JCGARY's link is probably a better guide.

                    Good Luck.
                    No to...?

                    If it's the "I hate you" line, I think it's still a valid, but maybe an overly simple example of subtext for an emotionally immature character. Your example works for more complicated characters, which we want do to write.
                    #writinginaStarbucks #re-thinkingmyexistence #notanotherweaklogline #thinkingwhatwouldWilldo

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Defining Subtext

                      "Meaning that's implied, but not explicit, in a character's words or actions."

                      Although usually when people discuss subtext they refer to a quality of the dialogue, not the action.

                      The key with subtext, as with conflict, is that it has to come up naturally in the context of the scene. Why would this character or characters not speak openly? Maybe there's a third character in the scene who shouldn't know what they're really talking about, maybe a character isn't comfortable speaking of his feelings and lets them out in a different way, maybe a character is playful with language...

                      I think you have to arrive to subtext in an almost unconscious way, instead of trying to inject it into a scene. If you train your ear for dialogue and read or watch stories that make a good use of subtext, it should come to you naturally.

                      I want to add that, just as not every single scene needs conflict, not every dialogue exchange needs subtext (although I'm probably just stating the obvious.)
                      Last edited by Dr. Vergerus; 01-24-2012, 06:32 AM.

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                      • #12
                        Re: Defining Subtext

                        What helps with subtext is knowing your characters and what they're thinking in the scene. That will help in writing subtext subconsciously as Dr. Vergerus said.
                        what the head makes cloudy the heart makes very clear

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Defining Subtext

                          Hey Sundown, you've got some good answers from some knowledgeable people.

                          Just ignore some of the miserable pricks who are impressed with themselves when they are being as unhelpful as they possibly can.

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                          • #14
                            Re: Defining Subtext

                            I don't think subtext is limited to dialogue. There can be subtext in actions or the entire film can be a work of thematic subtext. We should all work to exploit as much subtext as possible, in my opinion.

                            When you intro a character in the start of a script, the characteristics you reveal about them are subtext for later scenes.

                            Annie Hall has a scene where the subtext of the characters' dialogue is in subtitles. It reveals the sexual tension in their relationship and it's funny. But it would have worked without the subtitles. Then there's the lobster scenes where actions reveal subtext. The first lobster scene shows Annie andd Alvy having one of those great couple moments with the runaway lobster. After they break up, Alvy tries to recreate that moment with a different woman and it falls flat. The second failed lobster scene is loaded with subtext about his love for Annie.

                            Another great subtext scene, Apocalypse now. They're in the middle of war zone and they go surfing. It says much about the entire unit led by Duval's charcater. And of course his famous line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

                            Or, you have the line in Jaws, "We need a bigger boat." That works on a couple of levels because the audience is in on it whereas the two supporting characters are not.

                            Or, "You can't handle the truth." There are several layers of subtext in that line that applies to the Cruise character, the Nicholson character plus us, the audience: if we knew what our military had to do to keep us safe, we couldn't handle it.

                            And ... "Make my day." that reveals so much about Dirty Harry on so many levels, it's not just a cool quip.
                            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                            • #15
                              Re: Defining Subtext

                              Originally posted by SundownInRetreat View Post
                              To anyone else (if there's anyone else) who'd like to participate do you see subtext as linked to theme? Many a theme is not explicitly stated or is handled by way of metaphor - does this constitute as subtext to you? Is subtext purely dialogue specific?
                              It depends on how you define "theme". If you consider "theme" as the "central dramatic argument" (see: http://messageboard.donedealpro.com/...ad.php?t=65889) then it has to be demonstrated by the resolution of the final crisis, and that's hardly something that you would handle by subtext alone. This idea of "theme" is the same Lajos Egri stated in his book on playwriting, and what Robert McKee calls "controlling idea".

                              If you define "theme" as a vague notion like "loneliness", "vengeance", and so on, if it doesn't constitute the spine of your story, you can explore it or express it in whatever way you see fit: subtext, imagery, backdrop,... This kind of "theme", alone, isn't enough for a strong dramatic structure (not that all movies need one.)


                              The American Heritage Dictionary defines "subtext" as:
                              1. The implicit meaning or theme of a literary text.
                              2. The underlying personality of a dramatic character as implied or indicated by a script or text and interpreted by an actor in performance.
                              The first case clearly refers to the "controlling idea" or "theme", while the second seems close to what is usually called "subtext" in dialogue and action. I think it is more convenient to only use the word "subtext" for the second case, and "theme" for the first.

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