Sub-text is an odd thing: it’s both the most naturalistic way to write but also the most artificial, since the writer must put a lot of work into layering multiple levels of meaning within each scene, setting up and paying off complex x=y algorithms. And yet the results, if done right, will seem totally organic.
Here are eleven types of subtext, and an example or two of each:
- Talking about the present instead of the past: On “Modern Family”, the son frequently criticizes his father’s treatment of his new stepson, when he really wants to complain about his father’s treatment of him in the past.
- Talking about past instead of the present: Donna Reed keeps talking about her “Dance by the Light of the Moon” evening with Jimmy Stewart to try to let him know that she still likes him in It’s a Wonderful Life
- Talking about or exchanging an object instead of an emotion: In The Apartment, keys represent souls: Baxter loans out his apartment key in order to get an executive washroom key, but when he finally gets it, he realizes what it’s cost him and hands it back.
- Complaining about something trivial instead of something major: Tony worries about the ducks flying away in the “Sopranos” pilot, rather than his guilt over his mother. (Or for the opposite version of this, see the above skit)
- Complaining about something you can’t do anything about to avoid complaining about something you can do something about: Andie MacDowell frets about a garbage barge instead of her marriage in Sex, Lies and Videotape, Woody Allen rants about the Warren Report instead of his marriage in Annie Hall
- Talking about an obstacle instead of a conflict: Jason Robards always claims that he can’t look for a job until he completes various small tasks in A Thousand Clowns
- Attributing one’s desires onto a third party: In Husbands and Wives, married Mia Farrow is attracted to Liam Neeson, but rather than admit it, she suggests her friend date him.
- Criticizing a third party instead of the person you’re talking to: Dennis Christopher talks about how the Italians cheat as a way of indirectly confronting his father’s dishonesty in Breaking Away.
- Talking about work dispute instead of home dispute / home dispute instead of work dispute: Sam and Diane initially broke up on “Cheers” because they kept arguing about whether or not to have a fortune-telling machine in the bar, rather than arguing about their future.
- Feigning an opposite emotion: feigning hate instead of lust in Gilda, annoyance instead of attraction in The Awful Truth, devotion instead of contempt in Match Point, aloofness instead of fascination in Pride and Prejudice.
- This last example is sort of the reverse, so I suppose you could call this super-text…a character chooses to make huge life change rather than risk a relatively minor confrontation: The son becomes Italian rather than confront his father in Breaking Away, another son stops speaking rather than confront his father in Little Miss Sunshine, a third son changes his first name rather than confront his father in “Breaking Bad”
Another extremely useful post!
I'll be thinking about this one for a while, but off the top of my head: What about a character disguising his/her feelings in some kind of professional/technical/subcultural slang? Or somebody telling a joke or a story that's obviously about some kind of unspoken relationship dynamic? Or getting in some kind of physical fight with an unrelated party?
A character talking about himself to someone else when he is really describing the other person.
(Kevin Smith's story in Chasing Amy)
And the opposite, a character talking to someone else about the other person when he is really describing himself.
(Tyrion Lannister talking to his sister in the Game of Thrones season premiere a few days ago. "It must be hard for you to be the disappointing child" or something like that.)
These are all great.
Well, j.s., Jeff has one-upped you by giving examples. Can you cite any specifics?
I was thinking abstractly, not of anything I'd remembered seeing or reading. Of course, now that I've read this post I'll probably start seeing these moments everywhere and I'll happily return to add to the typology of subtext.
This is exactly the kind of thing I love about your blog and definitely something I've never encountered anywhere else on the Internet or in a book. You have a real knack for systematic thinking that nevertheless remains grounded in specific and practical examples.
Eating food instead of having sex (Tom Jones).
Remember that great Cheers episode where Woody and his girlfriend were binging on food to suppress their sexual urges?
The Swedish Method: to have characters talk about what they aren't talking about, have everyone speak only in brief, strained banalities, with plenty of pregnant silences between. Let the atmosphere of the situation seep into the scene, so that what is not being said is all that is being said.
Also known as: holidays with my family.
Done properly, it gives extraordinary weight to what goes unsaid. Done poorly, it gives you a room full of people begging to be slapped around.
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