“Spectators come to the theatre to hear the subtext. They can read the text at home.”
How right he is. Subtext adds an extra layer of complexity to every line. It can take an ordinary conversation and lend it a magnetism that draws the audience in.
Subtext also gives the actor something to DO. They can play the subtext, while saying the lines written in the script.
The two blend together to create an interesting contradiction.
But how do you actually write subtext?
The fact that, by definition, it isn’t actually ON the page can make it rather difficult to write.
Here are a few tips that have helped me in getting a handle on subtext:
* Remove any “on the nose” lines.
Do a reading of your play with a specific eye toward lines in which you have a character saying exactly what they mean.
Here are a few simple examples of on the nose dialogue:
“I am so mad at you!”
“I’m having such a great time.”
“I don’t trust you.”
Anytime you have a character saying a line like this, recognize that you have an opportunity to weave in that feeling as subtext–without having the character come out and say it.
One tip to do that is to…
* Give them something else to talk about.
You can think of each scene as a glacier–with a small tip that you can see, and a large body that’s hidden under the surface.
That hidden part of the glacier–the underwater part–is like the subtext of your scene.
So one way to lend more subtext to a scene that’s missing it is to give your iceberg a “tip.” In other words, give your characters something else to talk about.
Let’s say you have a scene with two characters arguing about whether or not to have a baby.
To cast that argument in subtext, give them something else to disagree on–something that can act as a proxy for the “real” conversation.
Maybe the couple has a dog, and the man keeps pointing out to the woman how much work it is (with the subtext being that a baby will be much more work).
Maybe the couple is looking at a new apartment, and the woman keeps dropping hints about how this place would have enough room for a nursery.
You get the idea.
* Think about how your characters would surreptitiously pursue a goal.
Imagine a scene in which Character A keeps inquiring after the health of Character B.
On the surface, A seems to be concerned about B’s welfare…but under the surface, it seems like something else is going on.
The inquiries have almost a menacing quality.
Over time, you come to realize that the A is searching for weakness. Looking for an opportunity to take advantage of B’s weakness.
This is an example of a character pursuing a goal in a surreptitious way–and the result is a scene rich with subtext.
So think about how your characters might use deception or misdirection to get what they want in your play.
When you start to pay attention, you realize that people rarely say exactly what they mean or what they feel. Instead, their comments are filtered according to many things (social niceties, a desire to avoid conflict, etc.).
Let your characters do the same. It will help you write a more nuanced and layered work of theatre.
And if you want more playwriting advice, tips, and hacks, make sure to check out the comprehensive PSH Playwriting Course.
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