- Not too much slang and swearing
- No chit chat
- Cliché avoiding
- No obvious exposition
- Psychological truth
- Avoiding on-the-nose dialogue/lack of subtext
While it's important to master all of those, it's the on-the-nose subtext thing that stands out the most in scripts I read from new writers. What's wrong with on-the-nose dialogue? It shows clearly that it's the writer talking and not the characters. It's the writer wanting to get their plot down as fast as possible with no regard for creating believable characters first.
If I read spoken subtext in a script it’s a good sign that there’s no need to read any further as I know exactly what's going to happen next. Ciphers and stereotypes tend to be quite predictable and tedious. It's human stories and psychological truth that audiences are interested in. Even if it's an action film about elves and aliens. Most of that dialogue checklist would be solved naturally if people spent the time on creating characters in the first instance. Once you bring your characters to life then writing dialogue is more like transcribing as the characters speak to you. Although if they literally speak to you that isn’t a good sign and you should maybe get some help.
So what is 'subtext'? By subtext I mean underlying meaning; the unspoken thoughts and motives of your characters and what they really think and believe (either consciously or subconsciously). You shouldn’t have text without subtext not only because the audience is expecting to read between the lines but in reality people don't always say what they're thinking or feeling. Subtext also sells scripts and attracts actors. It is something actors look for as it gives them something to work with, it's more of a challenge and it’s more real.
You might be thinking that subtext is the actors' job and you'd be right. However, the actors role is to play the subtext not invent the subtext. The writer has to put the subtext there in the first place. When an actor reads the script the subtext should be clear.
To put it simply, it means that by not writing everything and cutting superfluous dialogue, you're giving the actor room to interpret and the audience room to think. So it's about trusting both the actors and the audience. Remember the audience aren't passive participants either, they’re active. Maybe not physically but their minds are working.
Here's a scene from Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman's Annie Hall showing how there's always something more going on than what we say:
(pointing toward the apartment
after a short pause)
So, did you shoot the photographs
in there or what?
(Nodding, her hand on her hip)
Yeah, yeah, I sorta dabble around, you know.
Annie's thoughts pop on the screen as she talks: “I dabble? Listen to me -
what a jerk!”
They're ... they're... they're wonderful,
you know. They have ... they have, uh
... a ... a quality.
As do Alvy's: “You are a great-looking girl”
Well, I-I-I would-I would like to take
a serious photography course soon.
Again, Annie's thoughts pop on: “He probably thinks I'm a yo-yo
Photography's interesting, 'cause, you
know, it's-it's a new art form, and a,
uh, a set of aesthetic criteria have
not emerged yet.
And Alvy's: I wonder what she looks like naked?
Aesthetic criteria? You mean, whether
it's, uh, good photo or not?
"I'm not smart enough for him. Hang in there”
The-the medium enters in as a condition
of the art form itself. That's-
”I don't know what I'm saying-she senses I'm shallow”
Well, well, I ... to me-I ... I mean,
it's-it's-it's all instinctive, you
know. I mean, I just try to uh, feel
it, you know? I try to get a sense of
it and not think about it so much.
”God, I hope he doesn't turn out to be a shmuck like the others”
Still, still we- You need a set of
aesthetic guide lines to put it in
social perspective, I think.
”Christ, I sound like FM radio. Relax”
You should trust the intelligence of your audience. You may feel that spoken subtext is needed to ensure people know what's going on but think about yourself as an audience member - do you need everything spelled out for you? Even The Tweenies gives room for the audience to think for themselves. I've read somewhere. Not that I’ve ever watched it myself.
Subtext goes to the heart of believability. The audience doesn't accept or believe on-the-nose dialogue.
Have you ever been ill or really pissed off but if someone asks "how are you", you answer "fine"? Your body language, the terse abrupt closed reply may suggest otherwise; may suggest a subtext: "I'm not fine but I don't want to burden you with my problems, you're so nice and I'm so worthless." Or "I'm not fine, thanks to what you did to me and if you haven't realised it by now, then I'm not going to tell you." Or "I'm not fine but what's it got to do with you, you nosey get."
If a subject is too difficult to understand or too painful to explain then we may beat around the bush. We can be worried about hurting other people's feelings or revealing too much of our own feelings.
One of my favourite comedies is Liar, Liar. I’d recommend renting it to see the consequences of someone being forced to tell the truth in social situations. And while you're there think about how they make you believe a, quite frankly, unbelievable thing. Get your money's worth out of the rental by watching it again to look at the structure. But I digress...
How subtext manifests itself is character specific. A shy man in love with his doctor is going to behave in a different way than an aggressive woman in love with her doctor.
What we say is dependent on the context and the subtext. So if I say 'I love you' I could mean 'I want to shag you' or 'I like you' or 'I care about you' or 'I want to control you' or 'I want to make you feel guilty' or 'I hate you'.
Of course people don't talk in subtext all the whole time. When Damian Johnson got sent off for Blues at Leeds recently I had some harsh words to say to the referee I can tell you - he knew exactly what I thought of him. Now I've calmed down, rather than ask the referee if his poor eyesight was due to excessive masturbation or the diseases his mother picked up while working as a prostitute I can see his point of view more and would now only suggest he maybe goes for an eye test.
So it's only in extreme emotion that subtext is spoken and characters say what they really mean. And then what happens? People revert back to subtext but maybe they now feel guilty or relieved or happy. But it's those moments of extreme emotion that the audience is waiting for, not necessarily consciously.
Comically, think of Daphne and Niles in Frasier. The audience was anticipating Niles' extreme emotion where he eventually confesses his love. But it's that subtexted emotion and yearning that provided so many quality comedy moments for several seasons.
It's actually subtext that makes viewers want to get to know the characters. The fact that Niles is married is interesting and his chats to Daphne might be interesting but that's all surface, that's just text. It's the subtext that he loves Daphne that intrigues an audience. It makes the fact that he's married much more interesting, it makes his chats to Daphne much more interesting. While we might not have experienced that exact situation, we can understand the psychological truth of being married but being secretly in love with someone else and being unable to tell them.
Dramatically, think of Sling Blade, where a man released from a mental hospital for murder is befriended by a young boy and his mother. The lead character doesn't say much and yet much is revealed. So much so in fact that the last act is almost unbearable to watch due to the anticipation.
We say one thing, think another, do something else. The drama arises from that conflict, the difference between what someone says and what they do. If I say, think and do the exact same thing, it's not only unrealistic it's pretty bloody boring. It's useful to have some internal conflict, some kind of paradox - but with the character remaining psychologically true.
Of course if people aren’t saying what they mean, how do you show that in a script? If a line can be interpreted in several ways then it's OK to say how it should be interpreted. Here’s a scene from a TV film:
49/15 EXT. HANGER CAFE DAY 72 12:15
MIRIAM STANDS ALONE WITH BABY ALICE IN A SLING. SHE'S LOOKING AROUND FOR SOMEONE. ALL HUMAN LIFE IS THERE, MILLING ABOUT. PETER HOBBLES DOWN THE DRIVE. MIRIAM WAVES TO HIM.
I've been looking for you everywhere.
Thing's are really bad at Mary's.
Look Miriam, I'm not feeling too hot....I've hurt
my leg and I want to get home.
Oh... I'm sorry ... are you all right?
Yeh ... it's not much. Just need to put me feet up.
HE HOBBLES OFF. ALICE CRIES, PROMPTING HIM TO TURN. MIRIAM, UPSET, TRIES TO COMFORT HER. PETER SIGHS AND RETURNS.
You look awful.
It's nothing, honest. I'm fine.
Mary's not going to chuck you out it's never
going to come to that.
I don't know what to do I really
Look if anything happens ... we'll sort
something out. You can rely on me.
Thanks, Pete. Thanks for saying that.
What are mates for? (SQUEEZES HER SHOULDER)
Better now? (GOES)
MIRIAM (TO ALICE)
What d'you reckon, Alice? How
would you like a proper Dad?
If it wasn’t obvious that the character Peter was sympathetic so the writer put “PETER (sympathetic)”. Peter originally walked away not wanting to talk to Miriam. Why? Does he not like her? When he comes back to talk to her is it reluctantly just out of guilt or to take the piss out of how she looks? No. Because of the note, we know it's out of genuine sympathy. Later, in a more subtle way, he puts his hand on her shoulder.
But nothing reads worse than scripts where almost every speech has direction for the actors - in the example above it's used just once. But practice and experience will let you know when it's useful to an actor (and reader) and when it's off putting. Also look at the non-verbal communication in the example as well. There's the hand on the shoulder thing, there's waving, being 'upset', sighing, sniffing. It could have all been replaced by dialogue but it's more real this way - only 7% of communication is verbal.
Hopefully I’ve given something to think about and it will become clearer once people start writing their next project.
In the meantime when you watch drama and comedy I recommend thinking specifically about that dialogue checklist, especially subtext.