Subtext (noun) – a hidden or less obvious meaning.
To use subtext correctly takes a great deal of skill and plenty of practise. It took me several months to learn not only how to use it wisely but also what a valuable tool it is if used correctly. Make it too obvious and you lose its effectiveness. Don’t make it obvious enough and your audience will be wondering what the hell your characters have just been talking about.
Here’s a scene from one of my commissioned screenplays – COWBOYS CAN FLY. Toby is 14 and lives in an isolated cottage with his mother, Nurse Betty, in the New Forest during the 1960s. They have been discussing Cy, a sickly boy from London, who is staying with them while he recuperates. Nurse Betty has just spotted Dodger, the garden gnome, sat atop a molehill.
Nurse Betty nods at Dodger.
NURSE BETTY (CONT’D)I see Dodger’s keeping those moles away.
Toby stops mowing.
TOBYI think he might be planning on escapin’ again.
NURSE BETTYWhy, doesn’t he like it here?
TOBYOf course he does, just… well he’s got to thinkin’ there are more gnomes out there.
NURSE BETTYI’m sure he’s got plenty of friends around here.
TOBYNone of them are gnomes though, are they? Dodger sometimes thinks he should be with his own kind.
Toby picks Dodger up, looks him square in the eye.
TOBY (CONT’D)Don’t you, mate?(to Nurse Betty)Besides, what’s he got to do now all the moles are gone.
NURSE BETTYOh, I’m sure they’ll come back at some point.
TOBYDodger knows this, but he’s not sure it’s enough to stay around. There’s a ton of other gnomes out there he’s never met, a whole world of adventure to be explored.
NURSE BETTYI could bring him home a new companion? They were selling ladybirds in town the other day.
TOBYAnd he would thank you for it, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Toby puts Dodger down on top of the molehill, back on watch.
NURSE BETTYAren’t you going to stamp that one down?
TOBYNo, that’s Dodger’s hill now. He loves the view.
Nurse Betty stands and kisses Toby on the top of his head.
NURSE BETTYI hope Dodger stays, it wouldn’t be the same without him. And when Cy gets home take it easy on him for a while. Don’t go pestering him to go on walks with you.
Toby nods. Nurse Betty kisses Toby on the top of the head again, enters the cottage. Toby goes back to the mowing, going over what he’s done already.
Did you get all of the subtext? Here’s what I’m conveying with this scene. 1 – Toby is a very lonely boy and his mother is obviously concerned about this. 2 – Toby is gay and in a time when practising homosexuality was illegal and punishable by a prison sentence, he is unsure exactly how to tell his mother. 3 – Toby thinks he has to move away to be with like minded people. 4 – His mother knows he’s gay, is telling him it’s OK and that he doesn’t have to move away to be who he wants to be, even if he doesn’t quite get the message.
The best way to practise subtext is to write a scene as you really mean it to play out and then rewrite it so your meaning is hidden in something else entirely, still keeping the essence of your original scene within the new one. You won’t get it first time, or the second, probably not even the third, but you will eventually. It’s just down to how much work you put in to it.