Subtext in Dialogue

In real life, people rarely say exactly what’s on their mind. Imagine the following scene in a romance:

MAN: I love you.

WOMAN: I love you too.

If you saw this scene, it would likely be fairly dull and brief, making it forgettable. A far better solution is to have characters speak indirectly on what’s on their mind. What they say is actually disguising their true meaning.

In the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” Annie Oakley is trying to win the heart of another sharpshooter who is popular with high class society women, who look at Annie Oakley as more like a trick pony than an equal. So when these women ask Annie if she brought her gun to do tricks for them, Annie replies, “I wish I’d brought my gun so I could shoot all of y’all.”

The high society ladies laugh and think it’s a joke but the subtext is that Annie doesn’t like these women and she says it right to their face without them realizing it.

In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen and Diane Keaton pretend to engage in small talk at a party but the subtitles of each character reveals their real thoughts. Woody Allen might say an innocent question about the weather, but his subtitle says, “I wonder what she looks like naked?”

Subtext is basically saying something without directly saying it. If characters speak exactly what’s on their mind, the dialogue can feel phony and forced. When characters speak indirectly about what’s on their mind, the dialogue can feel more realistic and interesting.

And if characters can engage in verbal conflict with each other without coming out and saying it, that can be even more interesting of all.

In the musical “Oklahoma,” the hero (Curly) and his rival for a woman’s hand (Jud) engage in a deadly but playful conversation. Jud wants to kill Curly so he can get the woman and Curly is aware of this, so Curly starts talking how great Jud is because he treats rats as his equal.

Curly then proceeds to sing a song talking about all the wonderful things people would say about Jud if only he were dead. It’s a funny scene and shows two characters fighting each other without physically fighting each other.

Make your dialogue interesting through subtext. It’s fun and greatly increases interest in a screenplay.

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