How to write subtext: The art of writing between the lines

Arguably one of the greatest things about the medium of video is the discussions it creates. A good film will entertain, but a great film will keep you thinking and discussing it long after watching. So how can a film spark such long discussions and leave a lasting impact? By using subtext effectively. In this article, we will explain what subtext is and show you how to write subtext.

What is subtext?

Subtext is any content of a creative work that isn’t announced explicitly by the characters or author. It is the underlying message that isn’t stated or shown. Imagine your film and its story as an iceberg, with the majority hiding underwater. That underwater portion is subtext.

To give an example of how subtext works, imagine a character that is angry. When asked if they’re okay, they say “I’m fine” with an annoyed tone to their voice. The character isn’t directly saying he or she is angry, but we can read between the lines based on tone and action that the character is angry. Now, that is a very basic example of subtext. Subtext can be used in countless ways to really bring your film to life.

Here is an example of subtext from film history. In Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, while the surface story is about dangerous dinosaurs, the underlying story of the film is about the main character’s fear of becoming a father. The event of the story forces Alan Grant, the protagonist, to look after the park’s grandchildren and protect them from its dangers. In the end, Grant feels comfortable with being a father, knowing he can handle the challenges ahead.

Scene from Jurassic Park
The sublining story in Jurassic Park is its protagonist Alan Grant learning he is ready to be a father. Image courtesy: Universal Pictures

Why you need to be using subtext in your films

When it comes down to it, subtext engages your audience. It helps develop your characters as well as build dramatic tensions and add depth. It is an essential tool that professional filmmakers are always thinking about, looking deeper past what is being recorded in their frames. Subtext allows you to write screenplays with multi-layered narratives that keep your audience unpacking your film long after viewing it.

You can use subtext in different ways

There many many different ways you can use subtext in your film. Here are the three major categories of how to write subtext:

Privilege subtext: This builds the tension of the story. It lets readers know critical information about the plot that the characters don’t know yet.

Revelation subtext: This kind of subtext builds slowly and towards an underlying message throughout the narrative until it is ultimately revealed.

Subtext through questioning: This subtext comes in when the reader’s curiosity in the text leads to unanswered questions about the plot or the characters.

How you can incorporate subtext into your films

Writing subtext can be a very difficult and intensive process. But in the end, it is worth all of the energy and time you put into it. Here are a few tips to help you start writing subtext:

  1. Study subtext in films and novels

Look at what the characters are not saying. What is the writer’s intention? What are you not seeing that’s developing the narrative?

2. Think from your character’s position

If you are writing dialogue or a course of action for a character, think from their perspective. Think of all the things that could influence what they say and do. Circumstances might have them hide something from another character. Or they could behave in a particular way due to an event that is affecting them.

Hands typing on a keyboard
Try to think from your character’s perspective when writing subtext

Take a moment to think about the objective of the character after reading a script. Then consider the obstacles that they face. Characters adopt different strategies to try and conquer their obstacles and then these tactics change based on subtext.

3. Keep notes

Note what the scene’s subtext is while you are writing your script. Really cut deep into what the character is feeling in the scene, even if they aren’t acting in a way that expresses that emotion. People very rarely fully act the way they feel.

4. Practice

When it comes down to it, the best way to become better at incorporating subtext into your work is to practice writing it. The more experience you get with writing subtext, the more natural it will become.

Subtext is a powerful tool for filmmakers because it helps build more complex and engaging stories. When used effectively, subtext can result in a movie being discussed and remembered for years to come.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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