Subtext is an odd thing: It’s both the most naturalistic way to write and 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-equals-y algorithms. And yet the results, if done right, will seem totally organic.
Here are some of the many types of subtext and an example or two of each:
- Talking about the present instead of the past: On Modern Family, Mitchell frequently criticizes his dad’s mistreatment of his new stepson, Manny, instead of complaining about his own mistreatment as a child.
- Talking about the past instead of the present: In It’s a Wonderful Life, Donna Reed keeps trying to talk to Jimmy Stewart about the time they sang “Dance by the Light of the Moon” because she wants to indirectly let him know that she still likes him.
- Talking about or exchanging an object instead of an emotion: In The Apartment, keys represent souls: Jack Lemmon loans out his apartment key to get an executive washroom key, but when he finally gets the key he wants, he realizes what it’s cost him and hands it back.
- Complaining about something trivial instead of something major: In the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony worries about the ducks flying away rather than his guilt over his mother.
- Complaining about something you have no control over to avoid complaining about something you have control over: 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: The hero of the play A Thousand Clowns always claims that he can’t look for a job until he completes various small tasks.
- Attributing one’s desires to 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: In Breaking Away, Dennis Christopher talks about how the Italians cheat as a way of indirectly confronting his father about his dishonesty.
- Talking about a work dispute instead of a home dispute, or a home dispute instead of a work dispute: On Cheers, Sam and Diane initially break up because they keep arguing about whether to have a fortune-telling machine in the bar rather than arguing about their future.
- Feigning an opposite emotion: In Pride and Prejudice, the couple feigns aloofness instead of fascination. In the classic film noir Gilda, the couple feigns hate instead of lust. In The Awful Truth, the couple feigns annoyance instead of attraction. In Match Point, a young groom feigns devotion instead of contempt.
- Talking in broad generalities to avoid talking in specifics: Harry in When Harry Met Sally keeps debating about the general rule that a man and a woman can’t be friends instead of telling Sally he’s in love with her.
- Talking about self, but really talking about someone else: Kevin Smith's character in Chasing Amy tells a story about himself in order to get Ben Affleck to admit that he’s in love with the title character.
- Talking about someone else, but really talking about self: On Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage’s character says to his sister, “It must be hard for you to be the disappointing child.”
- A character chooses to make a huge life change rather than risk a relatively minor confrontation: This last example is sort of the reverse, so I suppose you could call this supertext. One son becomes Italian rather than confront his father in Breaking Away, another son stops speaking rather than confront his father in Little Miss Sunshine, and a third son changes his first name rather than confront his father in Breaking Bad.
In each of these cases, it would have been so much easier for the writer to simply have the characters walk right up and confront each other about what’s really bothering them. Such scenes are tempting because they’re big, bold, packed with attitude, and full of conflict. But they’re flat because they lack multiple layers.
People avoid direct conflict. It’s usually in the best interest of both parties to keep the real conflict suppressed and stay focused on the surface conflict. It spares both parties pain, allows each to keep personal goals hidden, and gives an excuse to ignore the other’s ploy to force them to do something they don’t want to do.
Rulebook Casefile: The Masterful Subtext of Transparent
- Sarah (about biscuits): These are really amazing. Ali, you haven’t had one of these.
- Ali: Are you kidding? I’m gluten free.
- Maura: You having problems with gluten?
- Josh (talking over Ali): Yeah, she is, she’s having a lot of problems with gluten. Also with restless leg.
- Ali (playing along with mockery): It’s restless leg syndrome.
- Josh: Also, Epstein Barr…
- Sarah: Mercury poisoning…
- Josh: Chronic fatigue…
- Sarah: Fibromyalgia…
- Josh: Lyme disease. She had Lyme disease. Four people in Los Angeles have ever had Lyme disease, and Ali is one of them, but it was temporary.
- Sarah (to Maura): You have sauce right here (touches her own chin)
- Ali: Oh my god, leave him alone, he’s mid-meal. This is the golden rule, let him be as messy as he wants, we’ll hose him down at the end.
- Sarah: No! You clean up as you go along!
- Josh (to Maura): You guys never taught us how to eat. You realize that, right?
- Maura: Because we come from shtetl people. Your grandma Rose actually ate lettuce with her bare hands.
- Sarah (watching Josh eat) Josh, seriously, do something about yourself.
- Josh: Actually, on principle, I will not. I’m eating barbecue, it’s on my face, I’m not perfect like you.
- Maura: Okay…
- Josh: Sorry Miss Cleanliness USA.
- Sarah: It’s not that hard (wipes her own face) Wipe!
- Josh: Why don’t you clean up the barbecue sauce inside your vagina?
- Maura: HEY GUYS…
- Ali: Sorry.
- Mort: Listen, I have, I, I need to talk to you about something, there’s a big change going on, and (starts to cry) Oh God, I love you kids, I love you kids, I love you kids, I love you kids,
- Sarah: It IS cancer!
- Ali: Dad, are you dying? Just tell us if you’re dying. Daddy, are you dying??
- Sarah (overlapping): Oh my god, you were right, I knew it was cancer.
- Josh: I don’t think he has cancer. He looks good.
- Maura: Thank you.
- Sarah: It doesn’t matter how he looks! Remember Jill Goldberg? She had a melanoma for three years, they couldn’t see it, then BOOM, she’s dead.
- Josh: Jill Goldberg is dead?
- Ali (talking over Josh): Yeah, and if Daddy had the kind that looked like, (to Mort) What did all your friends die of?
- Maura: Prostate
- Ali: Prostate! That’s the one that you’ve probably got, right?
- Ali, Sarah and Josh all start talking at once and we can’t understand a word. We close in on Maura’s face until she finally slams her hand down on the table.
- Maura: God! Stop it! God, I don’t have cancer! [long silence] You kids want me to have cancer??
- They don’t answer, but Josh licks barbecue sauce off his fingers greedily.
- Maura: All right… So… [chickens out] I’m selling the house. I’m done with the house.
- Josh: I’ll take it.
- Sarah: No you won’t. You’re not going to move to the west side.
- Josh: No, not to live in, I’m going to flip it. I’m going to Zillow the fuck out of this place. Do you know how much it’s worth right now?
- Maura: Well, I…
- Sarah finally leans over and starts wiping barbecue sauce off Maura’s face.
- Maura: Well, I, --Oh, that’s cold—
- Sarah: I’m sorry (keeps wiping)
- Maura: Please?
- Sarah: I’m sorry.
- Maura (to Sarah): I was thinking that you and Len would love to live in this house.
- Josh and Ali: Oh my GOD!
- Josh: No fucking way! Jesus Christ! [Jumps up to do the dishes in an adjoined kitchen]
- Sarah (touched): Why do you want to give the house to me?
- Maura: Because I do.
- Ali: This is crazy. Now she has two sugar daddies?? She already got one!
- Josh: I want a husband to buy me a house who works his ass off so I can just go to yoga and just take naps all day. I’d love that.
- Ali: Why should you two get to decide who gets the house? You both have a house! I don’t have a house!
- Josh: You can’t have a house, because you can’t handle money, which is proven by the fact that you don’t have a house.
- Ali: ‘Proven’ is not a word like that. “As proven by the fact”? That’s a verb. As an adjective, “A proven fact”, that works. See? This is why you have to date children, because they don’t correct your grammar.
- Josh: I do not date children!
- Ali: Yes you do.
- Josh: You’re a child, actually. (to Maura) Listen dad, it would have been really nice if you’d talked to me about this privately, before you turned it into a free-for-all. You know what? I have a show, and I love you guys very much, I will speak to you later. Good-bye.
- After a cut that may be a time jump, or maybe not, Sarah gets up to clear the table.
- Sarah: Okay. (to Ali) You want to take this home?
- Ali: Yes, please.
- Sarah (to Maura): Daddy, you don’t need all this food, right?
- She doesn’t answer but looks somewhat forlorn as it’s take away.
- Sarah: Dad, I’m going to put these baby-backs in a ziplock for you.
- Ali (notices how depressed Maura is): Where you gonna live, Daddy?
- Maura looks at Ali but doesn’t answer. She’s going to live in an LGBT condo complex, but she can’t tell Ali that.
- They begin by mocking Ali as a hypochondriac = Don’t come to this skeptical family for sympathy.
- Then Sarah complains about their eating habits = They micromanage each other’s lives and resent each other for it. We see that Sarah is anal retentive, Josh is anal expulsive, and Ali is conflict-averse. Josh turns this into a criticism of their parenting.
- Maura interrupts, starts to cry, they all assume it’s cancer = “Mort” is (literally) death in their eyes, they’re fighting over her type of cancer = fighting over her corpse = fighting over her money.
- She decides not to tell them, offers them the house instead = “Fine, kill me”. She offers it to Sarah = “You control yourself, you keep it in, let’s keep it in together.” Josh explodes = “I want to liquidate you” “I never got quality from you so I’ll quantify you instead.”
- All three kids lash out at the home situation of the other two = “I may suck, but you two suck more so I get dad’s love/house by default.”
- Josh storms out. Sarah takes the food away from Maura = “I take your offer of power and leave you with nothing. I’m now the power broker and the other kids are now dependent on me.”
- It’s only with the final line that Ali tries to really listen, but now Maura is unwilling to talk, and who could blame her?
Rulebook Casefile: Subtext and Divided Identity in “Blazing Saddles”
Shortly thereafter, as Bart rides into the town where he will surely be killed, he rides high, having the time of his life. Even when the locals all predictably pull their guns on him, he only cocks one eyebrow in surprise, and then shuts them down with an absurd trick, pretending to take himself hostage.
So we have another example of Bart walking through the raindrops, easily outsmarting his enemies and blithely escaping certain death. At least in the surface text. But the subtext is rich. Bart rarely displays any anxiety about his situation and doesn’t consciously reveal a hidden inner self, but this scene says volumes. Was there ever a scene that offers a better example of this famous quote from W.E.B. DuBois?
- It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Who is Bart? To find out, he has to answer three questions: What do white people want him to be? What do his fellow black people want him to be? Who does he want to be? It’s hard for him to know. At the end, he gives a speech about how he’s needed elsewhere, “wherever people call out for justice,” but the townspeople all call out “Bullshit!” and he laughs in agreement. But he leaves anyway, headed “nowhere special.” He has united black and white to form a stronger town, but he cannot himself be at peace.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.
After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.
Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.
Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.
Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople
Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.
The Bourne Identity
Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.
Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.
Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.
Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses
Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party. Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him. Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.
Do the Right Thing
Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.
Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.
Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.
Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace
Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.
Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea. She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup. She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.
Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.
How to Train Your Dragon
Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.
In a Lonely Place
Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.
Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.
Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.
During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.
Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.
King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act
Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off. While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family. Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.
Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.
The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.
The gang takes over the Death Star command office.
Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. “Let me tell you something, Andy, don’t ever be named Dan.”
YES. At first, then Ripley finally calls it out.
YES. The monster = mental illness = unacknowledged grief = the dad = many other things. “I know you don’t love me anymore, because the Babadok won’t let you.”
YES. His dialogue with himself reveals a lot about the way racism and culture in general work, and the way in which Bart processes it.
YES. he’s in the closet in more ways that one. The knife is a phallus, implying a reversal of the rapist role.
The Bourne Identity
NO. Not really, it’s rather subtext-free.
YES. Debate about whether she’ll bake again, baking = feeling.
YES. Gittes implies it: “Where’s the girl?” “She’s with her mother.”
YES. “Now, that’s what I call a boat” means “I know everything”. Sonny tries to avoid saying “You belong to me now” until he has to say it at the end.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Sal willfully confusing the meaning on “brothers” has subtext to it. The pictures themselves carry a subtext. The ownership issues is in the subtext until Sal calls it out.
NO. No, it’s all plainly stated.
YES. The Vegas offer is brought up instead of saying that Alice and Dicky are taking his money. Charlene is called an “MTV girl” before she forces them to define that.
YES. Elsa stabs Anna’s heart.
YES. See exchange of objects below.
YES. Criticizing him for smoking in front of her daughter has a subtext of accusing him of subjecting her daughter to other vices.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Flirting through fighting, fighting through flirting.
In a Lonely Place
YES. The discussion of the screenplay parallels the other tensions.
YES. Very much so.
YES. When she pushes her “cool girl” thing too far and threatens to kill his family, he pauses and then says “What?”asdf
YES. See above.
vHe lights her cigarette. They switch to a romance language.
YES. King calls it out.
YES. see exchange of object below…
YES. Miles talks about Jack betraying his fiancé instead of betraying him.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Somewhat, but he also keeps blatantly mentioning each item.