Subtext in Your Screenplay Part 1 Dialogue

subtext in dialogueI know… There’s probably quite a few posts and articles already out there when it comes to subtext in your screenplay. I’m hoping that I’m able to possibly throw a bit of a different spin on things…

Subtext is the deeper meaning in your dialogue, action, characters, scene, and plot.

Another piece of the puzzle so to speak. A piece of the puzzle that compliments what you already know and maybe… Just maybe gives you a little clearer picture of how subtext works and how you can start using it right away.

Since this is Part 1, let’s start with subtext in dialogue. Why? Well, since my brother died, I’ve done a lot less blogging and a lot more reading and among that reading, a lot of scripts from people trying to break in and here’s what I’m seeing…

A WAR between two old friends…


There’s really no reason that these two old buddies of ours need to be at war with each other. In fact, from what I see, it’s almost as if many of us simply FORGET about subtext and it is in fact this missing subtext that is often the difference between a good and a bad screenplay. I’ve actually seen a lot of well written screenplays written by people trying to break in. By well written, I mean the screenplay LOOKS GOOD. It’s well formatted. It’s mostly active voice. It’s got a solid structure that works for the story. In short, it’s well written TECHNICALLY SPEAKING but it just lacks a certain OOMPH.

Often, that certain lacking oomph is subtext.

I’m a huge believer in getting that first draft out of your system. Do whatever it takes to purge it. If that means writing on the nose dialogue — SO BE IT. Let your on the nose dialogue be a PLACEHOLDER for your subtext as you make successive passes for subtext on that first draft.

Anything can be fixed if you fuck with it long enough.

Subtext in dialogue is the kind of dialogue that hooks US as we watch the movie. Good subtext often means so many different things to so many different people and in a strange way, is a lot like HIGH CONCEPT i.e., it has MASS APPEAL.

We ALL get it but we all get it for different reasons.

Here’s an explanation of how subtext can work — from the film, DONNIE BRASCO:

 Don’t get me wrong… On the nose dialogue has its place in your screenplay but on the nose dialogue simply doesn’t mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people like good subtext does. Additionally, on the nose dialogue doesn’t give your eventual actors a lot to work with when it comes to them interpreting the subtext of your character. I mean, you are writing a screenplay, right? I would imagine your hope is to eventually sell said screenplay and get it made, right?

Do you really want somebody like me coming in and rewriting your dialogue so that it has the layers of subtext not only we, the audience are looking for but also the people who buy and greenlight the eventual film are looking for too?

Of course you don’t.

Chances are that your spec won’t even get to that point anyway because of what it’s MISSING.

A hell of a lot of wannabe screenwriters just plain forget that what they’re writing isn’t a novel with a different format. You’re HOPEFULLY writing a future collaboration of all kinds of people with lots of different talents that will make your written word even better.

But you gotta give them something to work with.

This is why actors ARE actors. It’s their job to take your words and fill in even more subtext than you’ve already given them… To interpret your dialogue so they SEE the character you’ve created for them to play on the big screen — but in order to do that, you’ve got to give them something to work with. On the nose dialogue simply doesn’t give them much to work with as does a character rich in subtext in both dialogue and action.

Give your character’s dialogue subtext — and the eventual actor will be much more apt to interpret what’s beneath the surface of the dialogue through body posture, gestures, rhythm, stress, and intonation. It’s through the actor’s interpretation of the subtext you’ve given your character to speak that allows what you’ve written to eventually SPEAK to your audience.

I’m sure we’ve all heard and read that one of the main reasons people attend movies is to live vicariously through the characters… Especially the Protagonist. On the nose dialogue simply does not SHARE the secrets that your characters need to have in order to be compelling. By giving your characters subtext in dialogue, you allow the reader and eventual audience to SHARE those secrets thereby increasing the vicarious living we want to live when we watch a film or movie.

This is why it helps to not only have a theme for your story but consider giving each and every one of your main characters their very own theme APART from the story’s theme. This will not only help create subtext in dialogue but helps create a natural, organic structure for your story. Once you’ve given them their own theme, help them convey their very own theme through their subtext in the dialogue you write for them. Through your character’s theme and subtext, you can also disguise your character’s exposition instead of being so blatant about it like in most of the screenplays I read… Even from Professionals.

Remember… Most people we know don’t just come right out and say what they mean.

People lie. People are vague. People beat around the bush. People try to protect themselves. People try not to disgrace themselves. People try not to humiliate themselves. People try not to let the person they are speaking to know what they’re thinking. People try not to let on that they know as much as they know.

The list goes on and on and on…

Does your character’s dialogue do this?

Examples of on the nose dialogue and subtext in dialogue in Part 2.


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  • LisaG


    So weird because I just sat around for a couple of hours wading through a lot of those articles only to stand back and realize they are all saying the same thing and pretty much dealing only with dialogue.

    I got more out of this part 1 than I did out all those articles.

    I’m already excited to read the rest of this series!

    Thank you!


  •!/ReneeWritez Renee Woods

    Unk really good stuff here. Can’t wait for the rest of the series. I can definitely vouch for subtext being one of the most overlooked elements in screenplays and I cover a lot of professionally written screenplays.


  • Kyle

    I admit this is a huge piece of the puzzle for me and I have a hard time with it.

    Take it slow for us newbies, Unk.

    Thank you.

  • Joshua James

    Agree with everything … the only frustrating thing is that sometimes I think readers read so many scripts in a day that they sometimes prefer on-the-nose dialogue … that’s an unscientific opinion, of course, and it depends on the reader … but definitely there have been times wherein I’ve been asked to just spell something out in dialogue as opposed to subtext …

    The other frustrating thing is that everyone (non-writers) believe that they’re good at dialogue, but usually … no, they’re not … For me, dialogue has its own music and sense of place, and if a person hasn’t been to Nebraska or Missouri or Kentucky, they may not be hearing it right in their heads when reading … the Cohens are brilliant at landing that time and place with their dialogue, but they direct all their stuff, too …

    • Robin J Smith

      I did not enjoy on-the -nose dialogue at all, when I was reading… it felt like spoon-feeding me, gave my mind little to do but say ok… that’s point-blank… and it always feels like heavy-handed exposition that made me think of Soap Operas! They have to do this because Soaps have to catch up the NEW viewers (Johnny, remember Susan has amnesia — has for three years, so of course she doesn’t recall you divorced her and married me — ten years ago! She thinks you’re still on your honeymoon!….” Oh, please….
      My two cents…

  • sravan bharadwaja

    I really like working with characters who shoot out their words like bullets out of a machine gun but then having a character who is a Frank and outspoken person speak in subtext would be like walking on a double edged sword. But how do i do it? As in, why would a character like that even want to speak in Subtext in the first place?

  • Rick Barry

    Clear, fleshed-out explanations. Much better than many other articles on the on-the-nose dialogue. Glad I discovered your page. Thanks! I’ll be back (no Austrian accent)!

  • dwacon

    A bit of a tightrope walk to put in subtle expository that doesn’t fly over a reader’s head.

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