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”