On-the-Nose Dialogue vs. Great Subtext

August 30, 2010
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On-the-Nose Dialogue vs. Great Subtext

By Guest Columnist Hal Croasmun
President, ScreenwritingU
September 2010 Edition

 

If you are going to be a screenwriter (or even a novel), your writing toolbox needs to include great subtext. It is what gives your screenplay depth, keeps readers engaged, and causes anyone in the industry to see you as a professional.

For many, subtext is the great mystery. Let me simplify it.

Your job is simply to put meaning beneath the surface and have the surface words and actions either point to that meaning or cover up that meaning. It is just that easy–and it's not.

It is easy to identify when you see it done well, but it does take some understanding to do it well. Today, I'd like to give you one big part of the understanding you need and this could make a big improvement in your writing.

EXAMPLE: "You had me at Hello."

Everyone knows this line from the movie JERRY MAGUIRE. It was said in one of the last scenes where Jerry finally professed his love for his wife in front of the divorced women's group. It was very emotional and Jerry went through a lot, but until she said that line, he didn't know if she would take him back.

The Subtext Structure looks like this:

Surface line: "You had me at Hello." Under surface: I love you. Yes, I'll take you back.

Since that movie, the line "You had me at hello" has been used to mean everything from "You've got a deal" all the way to a play about the Mafia where it was used just before a hit took place.

The Mafia play Subtext Structure looks like this:

Surface line: "You had me at Hello."

Under surface: You're dead.

So the words "You had me at Hello" only have meaning in the context they are used. The meaning is beneath the surface. In JERRY MAGUIRE, the meaning was romantic and beautiful. In the Mafia play, the meaning was deadly and heart breaking.

Do you see that?

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

Based upon the many contests I've judged and the screenplays that come into our production company, my estimate is that about 92% of all screenplays coming into Hollywood have almost no subtext.

PROBLEM Subtext Structure looks like this:

Surface line: "This place sucks. I quit."

Under surface: This place sucks. I quit.

That is called "On-the-nose writing" or OTN. The character is saying exactly what they mean. It doesn't even allow the audience to interpret anything or experience anything on a deeper level. Why? Because the deeper meaning has been brought to the surface.

HOW CAN WE SOLVE THAT?

Let's take that line above and play with it a bit. In that case, you have one of two choices that are both easy to implement. Either keep the deeper meaning and change the surface line or the other way around.

Let's look at both ways of doing it in a very simple scene.

INT. OFFICE — DAY
Jack rants on about business.
JACK …And another thing– SUE Another thing?
She moves around the desk to his side.
JACK What do you think we're telling our new client tomorrow?
Sue takes her place on his lap.
SUE That this place sucks. I quit.
She kisses him softly.
JACK Me, too.

Okay, I know the scene is a bit cheesy, but do you see how the words "This place sucks. I quit." have a very different meaning when combined with romance. She's not quitting and neither is he. These two are having an office romance and the "I quit" references are used playfully to shift from business to romance.

So the Subtext Structure looks like this:

Surface line: "This place sucks. I quit."

Under surface: Let's have sex.

Now, let's go the opposite way and in this case, we'll actually have Sue quit.

INT. OFFICE — DAY
Jack rants on about business.
JACK …And another thing– SUE Another thing?
She stands to walk out..
JACK What do you think we're telling our new client tomorrow?
SUE Whatever you want.
From her purse, she pulls an envelope and slides it onto his desk.
SUE I have a gift for you.
He opens it, pulling out a lawsuit.
JACK What the hell is this?
SUE Hope that helps with your new client.
With that, she smiles and leaves.

In this one, the Subtext Structure looks like this:

Surface lines: "Whatever you want.
      I have a gift for you.
     Hope that helps with your new client"

Under surface: This place sucks. I quit…and I'm suing your ass.

In this case, the audience gets the deeper meaning even though her words are very "nice."

Either of those examples are more interesting, more professional, and will be more attractive to actors who play the roles. Just as important, they're easy to write. Just divide any scene into surface and beneath the surface. This is only the tip of the Subtext iceberg. You now have a subtext definition that works.

Learn more Subtext Secrets at Hal Croasmun’s ScreenwritingU

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