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Subtext Speaks

By Penny Penniston

The dialogue scene you're struggling with? Take the page, crumple it into a paper ball and throw it into the trash can across the room. If you can make the shot, then you instinctively understand everything you need to know in order to write subtext.

Making the shot requires an unconscious set of calculations. You can't just throw the paper ball in a straight line. You must take into account all of the other forces that will be acting on the ball as it flies across the room: the pull of gravity, the friction of the air, the breeze from the ceiling fan. You give the ball a powerful toss up to the left, the ceiling fan breeze bends it in a slight arc to the right, gravity pulls the ball down, the friction from the air slows the ball's forward motion, and the ball drops into the waste basket - a perfect shot.

In each moment of the ball's flight, multiple forces act upon it. The sum of all of those forces determines the ball's path. A good wastepaper basketball player understands this. He knows that there's not just one force at work, there are many. He makes an assessment of all of those forces when taking the shot.

Screenwriters make a similar assessment when writing dialogue. With each line, we take into account all of the forces acting upon a character.

The most dominant force is the goal. Every screenwriting book you'll ever read talks about the importance of giving your character a goal. Different books will call it by different names (the goal, the want, the overwhelming need, the action, the agenda, etc.) but the basic idea is universal. Every character needs to pursue something - something specific.

Goals are certainly important. A character without a goal is like a piece of paper blowing randomly in the wind. It might look pretty, but it's not going anywhere. When we give our character a goal, we launch her in a particular direction. Like the paper ball headed for the basket, our character is on a clear path.

But, that goal is not the only force acting upon the character, it is simply the most dominant. Like the fan breeze that bends the path of the paper ball, other forces will bend the behavior of a character. This is the source of subtext.

Characters with one and only one force acting upon them have no subtext in their dialogue. Consider the following line:

SAM: Bernice, I'd like to have sex with you. Your breasts look amazing in that dress and I think we should just get a hotel room and go at it.

Sam has a clear goal. He wants to sleep with Bernice. With no other force acting upon him, with no awareness of the need to negotiate any other issue, he can just state his intentions clearly. But let's imagine that there are other forces acting upon Sam. Try rewriting the line to reflect the following combinations of forces.

* Sam wants to sleep with Bernice, but he also needs to make sure he doesn't offend her.
* Sam wants to sleep with Bernice, but he also needs to make sure that he doesn't offend her AND he's also afraid of being rejected.
* Sam wants to sleep with Bernice, but he also needs to make sure that he doesn't offend her, and he's also afraid of being rejected, BUT he wants to make sure she doesn't notice that he's afraid of being rejected.

How does each combination of forces bend the writing of the line of dialogue?

In an attempt to create subtext, bad writers simply cut words. They fill their scripts with empty pauses and hope that those pauses suggest meaning. True subtext comes from addition, not subtraction. True subtext comes from weaving multiple dramatic forces into the words that you have, not from merely cutting the words that you don't need.

A good line of dialogue manifests of the sum of all of the forces acting upon a character at a particular moment. When two or more forces converge on a single line of dialogue, that line of dialogue must bend to reflect it. Therefore, subtext is not the result of something being left unspoken. Subtext is the result of so many facets of something being spoken in one line, that the weaker aspects get almost, but not quite, lost in the larger trajectory of the line.

Try the wastepaper basket shot in front of a friend. Ask him to describe it. Will he describe the bend from the breeze of the fan? Will he describe the friction of the air against the paper ball? Probably not. If he thought about it, he'd realize that those things are there. But most likely, he will not focus on them at first glance. Subtext works in the same way. It is not immediately apparent, but it still bends the path of the line. You still need to be aware of it in order to make the shot.

Writing Exercises (Adapted from my book, Talk the Talk: A Dialogue Workshop for Scriptwriters)

Script Analysis Exercise

(Note: Beginning writing groups should do this exercise with a produced film. Intermediate and advanced writers have the option of bringing in their own scripts for discussion.)

Have the group watch the same film or read the same screenplay.

Select one of the central characters. Have each member of the group select a different line of dialogue from that character. After group members select a line, they will present an analysis of that line. In the analysis, they should answer the following questions:

1. What is the context for this line? What is happening in the script at this moment?
2. Describe each force (both external and internal) acting on the character in this moment.
3. Which of those forces are strongest? Which are weakest?
4. How did the line of dialogue reflect the balance of those forces?
5. Are there any forces at work that were not reflected in the line? In the line of dialogue, did the author miss an opportunity to convey the full range of forces acting upon the character?

For Discussion:

1. After each presentation, have the group weigh in with its perspective. Does the group agree with the analysis? Is there any disagreement? Was anything left out?
2. After everyone has presented, compare and contrast the forces acting on the character at different moments of the script. How are they similar? How are they different? How do the changes in forces reflect the plot of the script?

Dialogue Writing Exercise

Start with the following two lines of dialogue:

CHARACTER A: I'm going to the store.

CHARACTER B: Get some milk while you're there.

Rewrite Character A's line three times. Each time, add an additional force acting on Character A. You may choose whatever forces you'd like.

Rewrite Character B's line three times. Each time, add an additional force acting on Character B. You may choose whatever forces you'd like.

Take the last line of the Character A and B rewrites. Use those lines as the first two lines of a 1-2 page dialogue between the two characters. Try to keep the initial forces consistent through the entire dialogue.

For Discussion:

Read each dialogue out loud.

1. Have the group try to identify the forces acting upon each character.

2. How did different combinations of starting forces lead to creating different character personalities, different relationships and different scenes?

3. What lines or sections popped out as having the most subtext? How did those lines or sections reflect the sum of all the forces acting upon the character(s) in that moment?

4. For each dialogue, discuss whether or not the forces stayed consistent over the course of the whole scene? If not, when did they change?

5. If the author changed the combination of forces over the course of the dialogue, have the author discuss why that happened. Why wasn't he able to maintain the consistency of the forces?

Solo Exercise

Brainstorm a list of things that a character might want from another person. Begin the description of each force with the phrase "From another person, my character wants..."

Here's a small sample set:

* From another person, my character wants the keys to the car.
* From another person, my character wants respect.
* From another person, my character wants an accomplice in crime.
* From another person, my character wants adoration.
* From another person, my character wants to be left alone.

Write each force down on an individual index card. Try to come up with at least fifteen different cards.

Once you have made your index cards, draw three cards out of the hat. This will be the mix of forces acting upon Character A. Choose one to be the dominant force. The others will be weaker forces.

Draw three more cards out of the hat. This will be the mix of forces acting upon Character B. Choose one to be the dominant force. The others will be weaker forces.

Write a 2-4 page scene between Character A and Character B. Look for opportunities for the forces to come into conflict with each other, even within the same line. Look for opportunities to use the conflicting forces to create subtext.

As an ongoing writer's work-out, keep adding to your index card file and repeat this exercise on a regular basis. As you get better at the exercise, try drawing more cards out of the hat to add additional forces into each character.

Meet the Author: Penny Penniston

Penny Penniston is a Chicago playwright and screenwriter. Her screenplay, Love is Brilliant, won the Sloan prize at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival. Her stage play, Spin, will have its world premiere in April in Chicago with Theater Wit. She has taught dramatic writing at Northwestern University and guest lectured on screenwriting at DePaul University. Her book, Talk the Talk: A Dialogue Workshop for Scriptwriters, was recently published by Michael Wiese Productions.