How to Write Subtext
The Mystery of Subtext.
by Hal Croasmun
For most people, subtext is the most elusive of all the writing skills. You ask a writer about subtext and you’ll get a vague answer that will leave you confused. Why? Because many of the best writers of subtext operate primarily from intuition. So they don’t have a conscious structure they can teach.
But there is a structure to subtext and it can be learned.
The quality of your dialogue can be dramatically improved by building in meaningful subtext. Well written subtext is the mark of a professional writer. On the other hand, constant on-the-nose (OTN) dialogue is the mark of an amateur writer.
Below, I’ve analyzed the subtext in the first three pages of AS GOOD AS IT GETS written by Mark Andrus and James J. Brooks. When you read it, along with my notes, you’ll understand why producers say that they can tell if a writer is any good in the first five pages. Keep in mind that this is what you’re up against when you send a script in.
Remember, subtext plays a vital role in bringing a script to life. It takes the movie from an external projection on a screen to an internal experience that an audience can live and enjoy.
Read my notes from these three pages and you’ll understand why subtext is so important.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS – Film Script Excerpt for Analysis.
ANGLE ON apartment doorway. As it opens and an enormously SWEET-FACED, ELDER WOMAN steps out, bundled up against the cold — turning back to call inside to the unseen love of her long life.
I’m just going to get some flowers, dear. I’ll be back in twenty minutes. It’s tulip season today. I’m so happy.
And now she turns and faces the hallway… her sweetness dissolves in a flash… replaced by repulsion and that quickly she has reversed herself and re-entered her apartment… closing the door as we consider her vacated.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Without a word from Melvin or the Sweet-faced woman, we get the message that Melvin turns people off. This does two things. First, it delivers a subtext message about Melvin. Second, it sets up future subtext by instantly causing us to suspect anything Melvin says.
POV – MELVIN UDALL
in the hallway… Well past 50… unliked, unloved, unsettling. A huge pain in the ass to everyone he’s ever met. Right now all his considerable talent and strength is totally focused on seducing a tiny dog into the elevator door he holds open.
Come here, sweetheart… come on.
SUBTEXT NOTE: The description of Melvin is a complete design for subtext. If Melvin is “unliked, unloved, unsettling, a huge pain in the ass,” then anything nice he says will be considered through that description. Melvin’s first words are a SCAM he’s running on this dog and ultimately it’s owner. Melvin says “Come here, sweetheart.” and we interpret that he’s luring the dog.
Sniffing at a particular spot on the hall carpeting. Melvin lets the elevator door close and advances on the mutt who has ignores him.
Wanna go for a ride? Okay, sweetie?
The dog lifts his leg at the precise moment Melvin lunges and picks him up with a decisive heft — so that dog urine squirts the hall wall for a second or two. The DOG sensing a kindred spirit starts to GROWL and BARK.
(a malevolent tone)
You’ve pissed your last floor, you dog-eared monkey.
SUBTEXT NOTE: At this moment, our suspicions are confirmed. Melvin means harm to the dog. This is the point where the true meaning of the subtext is revealed. It’s also the setup for subtext that will show up on the next page.
The dog takes a snap at Melvin, but the man is much meaner and quicker than the dog — he holds his snout shut with his hand and reaches for the door of the garbage chute.
I’ll bet you wish you were some sort of real dog now, huh? Don’t worry… this is New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, you know? You ugly, smelly fuck.
And with that, he stuffs him in the garbage chute and lets go. We hear a FADING SERIES of PLEADING “ANOOOOS” from the DOG fade to nothingness… as another apartment door opens emitting the loud sounds of a PARTY and SIMON NYE, early 30s. Simon has been born and raised with Gothic horror and it’s strange that what that stew of trauma has produced is a gifted, decent man.
INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY – NIGHT
Frantic… he bolts into the hall… Melvin is just about to enter his apartment.
Verdell!?!! Here, good doggie…
Mr. Udall… excuse me. Hey there!
(as Melvin turns)
Have you seen Verdell?
What’s he look like?
SUBTEXT NOTE: Here, we have another form of subtext — the lie by omission. Also, dramatic irony. We know that Melvin knows where the dog is, but Simon doesn’t know. Once again, Melvin says “What’s he look like?” and we hear Melvin’s unwillingness to tell what he’s done.
Melvin starts to walk back to his apartment door which is directly opposite Simon’s.
My dog… you know… I mean my little dog with the adorable face… Don’t you know what my dog looks like?
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.
Simon looks O.S. — and sees his black friend.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Here is another form of subtext — misdirection. Melvin’s answer to the question about the dog is to point the conversation toward Simon’s friend and create controversy to cover his crime.
Which color was that?
Like thick molasses, with one of those wide noses perfect for smellingtrouble and prison food…
Simon has had it.
Frank Sachs — Melvin Udall.
(not missing a beat)
How’re you doing?
SUBTEXT NOTE: Another form of subtext — feinting politeness. But we know that Melvin doesn’t like Frank, so his politeness isn’t real. That will clearly be shown in the next few lines.
Franks shows my work, Mr. Udall. I think you know that.
Simon, you’ve got to get dressed.
What I know is that as long as you keep your work zipped up around me, I don’t give a fuck what or where you shove your show. Are we being neighbors for now?
SUBTEXT NOTE: Here, the real meaning of the polite line above is shown. He wasn’t really being polite, just setting Frank up.
Do you still think I was exaggerating?
SUBTEXT NOTE: This question is another form of subtext — implication. It implies a conversation Frank and Simon had about Melvin earlier. With this question, we experience the conversation without it ever being on the screen.
FRANK can only smile.
Definitely a package you don’t want to open or touch.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Another form of subtext — metaphor. What Frank is really saying is that Melvin is so disturbing that they shouldn’t talk with him -an innuendo, which is a language pattern of subtext. But saying it through the metaphor of a package is much more elegant than blurting out an insult.
FRANK can only smile.
Hope you find him. I love that dog.
SUBTEXT NOTE: Politeness, lying, what else would we expect from Melvin? How about sarcasm? Another language pattern of subtext.
This is a very well written script. They use subtext well without overusing it. Notice how we as an audience are clued in on most of the meaning of the subtext. It adds to our experience of these characters, without frustrating or confusing us.
Let’s take a look at what has happened in the first three pages of AS GOOD AS IT GETS. We have excellent examples of:
- Five of the seven internal states of subtext.
- Three of the ten methods of subtext cover-up.
- Four of the eight language patterns of subtext.
- A character specifically designed for subtext.
- Two of the eight methods of designing a scene for subtext.
There are two extremely important things you need to know about this script:
1. Notice how all this subtext has made Melvin a very interesting character — a character so compelling that Jack Nicholson decided to play it. This script was written for casting. Each character is designed to attract an A-list actor and subtext played a big part in that.
2. Just as important, this is the level of your competition when you send a script to Hollywood. Professional writers use subtext well. Their scripts give an audience an internal experience of the movie. When readers recommend a script, this is the kind of work they feel will justify a recommendation.
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