Subtext Makes a Scene More Compelling

The dullest scene is one where nothing happens. Imagine two people driving in a car and not saying a word. Static action, like sitting in a car, never works by itself. Dynamic action works far better where characters are actively doing something such as digging a ditch or climbing a tree. While ordinary action is okay, unusual action is even better.

Watching two men walk down an apartment hallway while chatting is dull. Watching those same two men walk down an apartment hallway while chatting is suddenly more suspenseful when you see the two men pull guns out of a trunk and carry it with them before they walk down the apartment such as an early scene in “Pulp Fiction.” Anticipation makes any scene more exciting because there’s suddenly tension.

Besides an unusual action, another way to add tension to a scene is to add subtext. Subtext occurs when the characters physically pursue one goal while actually pursuing a secondary goal. “The Founder” is the story about how Ray Kroc screwed over the McDonald’s brothers to build the McDonald’s empire. In one scene, Ray Kroc meets his future wife, Joan. While in a fancy restaurant, he’s talking business with some men when he eyes a beautiful blonde playing the piano. One of the men asks if Ray would like to meet this blonde and he says yes, so the man brings her over and introduces Ray to Joan.

This is ordinary by itself, but then the man also announces, “She’s my wife.” Suddenly there’s added tension because Ray and Joan secretly admire each other but Ray is doing business with Joan’s husband. Yet the subtext is that Ray and Joan find each other attractive while the goal of the scene is supposedly to introduce Ray to a man (Joan’s husband) who wants to become a McDonald’s franchisee.

Another scene further highlights this subtext when Joan and her husband meet Ray in the same restaurant to show how Ray can save money on milk shakes. Instead of spending money on ice cream and refrigeration, he can use powdered mixes instead. Joan pours the mix in a glass and stirs it up. Then while Ray watches, Joan says, “Good things come to those who wait,” which is a subtle reference to Joan and Ray eventually starting a relationship.

When Ray tastes the stirred milkshake, he puts the glass down and Joan immediately drinks out of it as well. This shared milk shake on the surface looks as if Joan’s simply trying to convince Ray to use powdered mixes for his milk shakes, but the subtext is that Joan is flirting with Ray right in front of her husband.

Besides making a scene more interesting, subtext also moves the story faster. Physically that scene is about Joan trying to convince Ray to use powdered milkshake mixes, but on the subtext level, it’s about Joan trying to flirt with Ray. Since these are two parts of the same story, subtext helps introduce another story element and move it along without the repetition of another scene.

In other words, make a scene do double duty. Make a scene move one step closer to one goal and then make the subtext move the story one step closer to another goal. By making every scene perform double duty, your story will move faster and appear richer. Without subtext, you risk creating flat scenes that tell one story element, then drag your story out further by writing a second scene to tell a second story element. ]

By combining two stories in every scene (if possible), you slip exposition into your story seamlessly without the audience even knowing it. When that information later appears, it will seem natural.

Subtext is a way to disguise one story element within another although the audience should catch both stories at the same time. The more information you can tell in each scene, the more compelling every scene will be and that will simply make your overall screenplay stronger and more interesting.

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One thought on “Subtext Makes a Scene More Compelling

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