Subtext — Talkin’ Dirty

subtext - cartoon stock

Oh, the scenes we could write using this cartoon!

Text/subtext: “Let’s meet at McDonald’s [where we had that big break-up fight because you were being such an ass].”

Text/subtext: “Let’s meet at Giovanni’s [where we had that amazing dinner by candlelight and after which we spent the whole night exhausting each other making mad passionate love].”

Subtext belongs in dialogue. I can think of no other place for it. Therefore, I’ll cite screenwriting examples because screenplays are full of subtext (or should be). [Incidentally, I highly recommend studying several — repeat, several — books on screenwriting. Guaranteed, it will improve your story-writing skills immeasurably.]

Here are some examples. I particularly recommend Eric Edson’s The Story Solution: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take.

Screenwriting books - resized cropped

In novels, subtext is especially lovely in the Romance genre, particularly when the lovers first meet. I need not say how much fun subtext is in the horror genre, either in film or in books.

My first experience with subtext (I was 16) was the movie Psycho. Psycho is full of subtext, so much so, that if you know the ending, it almost becomes a comedy rather than a horror movie. (Well, to someone with my twisted sense of humour, that is.)

“My mother is not herself today.”

Subtext is blatant truth disguised.

Here’s a scene from the 1953 movie From Here to Eternity. Karen (Deborah Kerr) is the wife of Holmes and it is rumoured that she has had many lovers. Warden (Burt Lancaster) has seen her earlier; she doesn’t wear a bra. Holmes is Warden’s superior officer.


MEDIUM SHOT WARDEN AND HOLMES: It is a gloomy, rainy day and the lights are on in the office. Warden is at his desk, working. Holmes is buckling on his trench coat. He wears a happy smile.

HOLMES: I won’t be back in time to take Retreat. (winks at Warden) Or Reveille either, probably.

WARDEN: Yes, sir.

HOLMES: (strides back and forth; jovially) All work and no play, Sergeant. All you do is sit around sweating over this paper and that. There are other things in this world beside work.

Warden carries some official papers to Holmes’s desk.

HOLMES: (bending over, tying shoelace) You ought to get out more yourself, Warden.

Warden is looking directly at the picture of Karen on Holmes’s desk.

WARDEN: I’ve been considering it.

He turns aside as Holmes straightens up.

HOLMES: Well, I’m going.

He claps Warden on the back fraternally.

HOLMES: I’m leaving it in your care, Sergeant.

WARDEN: It’ll be here when you get back.

Holmes goes out. Warden turns back to Holmes’ desk. He is still holding the papers in one hand. He looks at Karen’s picture, picks it up with his other hand, squints at it, considering the chances very, very carefully.


We know darned well what’s going to happen, don’t we?


Next post: Go Ahead — Manipulate Your Readers

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Pingbacks & Trackbacks