Subtext in Your Screenplay Part 2 Dialogue

emotionsIn Part 1, I pointed out that you really need to give your actors something to work with when it comes to the dialogue you’re giving your characters…

That “something to work with” is subtext.

Subtext will help a reader, a producer, a director, and an actor distinguish WHO your characters are. There’s an old trick that’s been around a long time that explains how to check your character’s dialogue to see if it’s any good… To see if we can actually TELL who’s speaking. Just cover up the character cue (character’s name) in your screenplay and see if you can tell who’s actually speaking the dialogue.

There’s MERIT in that trick…

Unfortunately, a lot of screenwriters trying to break in simply don’t get it. They think that the actor should take care of all that INTERPRETATION and make each character distinguishable.

I’ve even received emails complaining that a lot of movies today have characters that sound a lot alike, “So why can’t I”?

You can.

Go ahead.

Everybody else is doing it so why not you?

But for those of us that do NOT want to venture down that path… Just HOW do you do that? I’m sure there are a lot of different ways to go about it but if you’re struggling for a technique you can get your mind around, let me go back to giving each of your main characters a theme… Hell, I try to give every character his or her own theme but I highly recommend it with your main characters.

Now understand… I am NOT talking about the theme of your story. Although your characters could certainly have their own themes that coincide with the theme of your story. What I am talking about is taking each one of your characters and giving them their own theme. Before you start shaking your head, just sit there for a minute and think about people you know. Family. Friends. Associates. Take one of them and boil their ESSENCE down to a theme and guess what?

It doesn’t have to be correct.

But it can be a lot of fun when it comes to exploring your story and the characters that hold it up.

In the last spec script I wrote, one of my main characters is a woman. A mother who’s children were killed and she is hell-bent on revenge hence, ANGER is her theme — see the chart below on basic emotions.

It is her theme — her anger and wanting REVENGE (vengefulness) — that drives her through the entire story. Every decision she makes is based on getting her just a little closer to succeeding with her revenge. Likewise, it’s this same theme of anger that drives her dialogue. She will let nothing stand in her way and she’s not afraid to reveal that with every word she speaks.

Take a look at the Primary emotion of ANGER in the chart. ANGER is where my female character began. ANGER was her theme. Anger made her the character she is in my screenplay. To the right of that primary emotion are both the Secondary and Tertiary emotions IN LINE with the primary emotion of ANGER. Damn near every scene this female character is in is driven IN SOME WAY by her primary emotion of ANGER or her theme.

Can a character’s theme change in the midst of your story? Of course. Change the theme or the emotion and just make sure that your character’s dialogue reflects that change.

Aside from the subtext however, giving your characters a theme — once you get a little practice — should enable those of us that end up reading your screenplay, the ability to read your screenplay faster and actually SEE the characters more clearly in our mind’s eye.

List of Basic Emotions by Parrot

When your character speaks from his or her theme, subtext is easy — rather, it’s not as difficult as it might be without those same characters having their own theme that drives them through the story.

Your inclination as you work these emotions into your character will very likely be to write ON THE NOSE DIALOGUE and that’s okay. As I said in Part 1, you should look at on the nose dialogue as a placeholder in your first draft… During rewrite(s), take that on the nose dialogue and stand it on its ear but do so based on your character’s theme.

Another trick to giving your character their very own theme is to boil down their theme to a list of words that further identify their emotional state that you can use to help you write their dialogue. If I take the word, ANGER — and run it through my favorite online thesaurus, I get the following synonyms:

a transient madness, acedia, affront, aggravate, angriness, annoy, annoyance, antagonism, ardency, ardor, arouse, asperity, avarice, avaritia, bad humor, bad temper, bile, biliousness, blow up, boil, boil over, bridle, bridle up, bristle, bristle up, burn, causticity, chafe, choler, corrosiveness, dander, deadly sin, discontent, displease, displeasure, dudgeon, dutch, eagerness, enrage, enragement, envy, exasperate, exasperation, excite, excitement, fervency, fervidity, fervidness, fervor, flare up, flip out, fret, fury, gall, get mad, get sore, gluttony, grapes of wrath, greed, gula, heat, hit the ceiling, huff, ill humor, ill nature, ill temper, incense, incite, indignation, inflame, infuriate, infuriation, invidia, ira, irateness, ire, irk, irritability, irritate, irritation, kindle, love, lust, luxuria, mad, madden, make angry, make mad, make sore, monkey, nettle, offend, outrage, pet, pique, pride, provoke, rage, rant, rave, reach boiling point, resentment, rile, saeva indignatio, see red, seethe, sexual desire, sloth, soreness, sourness, spleen, steam up, stew, storm, superbia, temper, tick off, umbrage, vex, vexation, vials of wrath, wrath, wrathfulness

Will I use all these… Nope. But I do like to boil that list down to some tasty words that I know my character is FEELING:

a transient madness, affront, aggravate, angriness, annoy, annoyance, antagonism, bad temper, blow up, boil over, discontent, enragement, exasperate, exasperation, excite, excitement, flare up, flip out, get mad, ill temper, infuriate, irateness, irritability, irritation, offend, outrage, pride, provoke, rage, rant, boiling point, resentment, seethe, storm, temper, wrath

I only point this out to show you what I go through to learn about my characters. Of course, they have a backstory. Of course I know where they came from and what they’ve been through prior to their being in my story. I have to know all that in order to be able to have them grow organically on the page.

Sometimes… Depending on the kind of scene you’re writing for your character, you may even want to boil that particular scene down to just ONE WORD in order to get yourself into the right frame of mind to write that character’s dialogue. You can easily pick from the emotion chart above, from the list of synonyms, or dig deeper and find just the right word that describes your character based on the scene you’re writing for them.

It is your character’s theme… The list of emotions and synonyms for those emotions that will guide you through the writing of their dialogue.

I’ve got to apologize… I thought this part would have some examples of both on the nose dialogue and turning it into subtext but I ran a little too long on this post but stay tuned if this is getting interesting to you. Examples coming up.

Unk

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  • Bob W.

    Hi Unk,

    This subject is VERY interesting to me, so I look forward to your examples in the next blog.

    My protag is a loner. He’s distant and keeps most people at arms length until he begins to slowly change after the inciting incident. I couldn’t match him in any of the categories you listed. Where would he fit?

    Thanks,

    Bob

  • http://www.bay51.com LF

    Hey Unk,

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing. I find these two posts by Dan Harmon, creator of Community, to touch on the same things you do here, from a slightly different angle. I found it incredibly helpful when writing dialogue, and so I’m sure I’ll find your approach the same, as I rewrite :)

    http://danharmon.tumblr.com/post/9510780192/hi-dan-my-wife-and-i-love-community-and-cant-wait

    http://danharmon.tumblr.com/post/3311306199/two-whole-reddit-questions-answered (2nd question)

    Thanks,
    L

  • Randall Oelerich

    I am also looking forward to some examples to illustrate the technique– I was thinking that just before reading your last paragraph promising examples to come, so kudos on the blog writing, you had me wanting exactly what you then teased would be forthcoming!

  • http://scriptdemons.blogspot.com/ Vince DC

    Hi UNK.

    Just wanted to say welcome back. I missed you. The impact you’ve had on my writing is immeasurable. And it’s all free!

  • Michael

    Hey UNK, great topic, and really helpful advice that surprisingly I’ve never read from that angle before. I will definitely think about character themes on future scenes written.

    On a side note, your favorite thesaurus site might have some crapware on it, as about a 1/2 dozen windows popped up upon going to it, and I had to shut down all browsers to regain control.

    Personally I use thesaurus.com religiously.

  • jtscreens

    Hey man, good to see you back. Sorry for your loss. I lost my dad a few years ago at a pretty young age. It can be tough but also inspiring.

    Hope all is well and thanks for the blog.

  • http://www.fencingwiththefog.blogspot.com MaryAn Batchellor

    Funny whenever I’m stuck I’m come back here. Still in quicksand but at least I see a vine nearby.

  • B. Rich Adams

    Unk,
    I am in the process of outlining a new pilot. This “Gem” of subtext and theme for each character could not have come at a more appropriate time. It makes so much sense and clearly makes it easier to differentiate the individual voices.
    Thank you so much.

    B. Rich