Subtext in Dialogue
Dialogue seems like such a skill; the kind of thing that’s just a talent. No matter how much you try and adorn it, classify it, and study it, it forever seems likely to elude you if you don’t have a gift for it. You are either the Coen Brothers or you are not the Coen Brothers. This is the necessary truth of writing great dialogue with subtext. Right? (57)
Yes and no. Some writers are born dialoguesmiths, they’re like Will in Good Will Hunting and when it comes to dialogue, they can just play. For the rest of us, mortals, we have to work for it. We have to practice. Fortunately, there are some easy techniques to learn that will help us [regularly talented writers] compete with the gifted.
Let’s begin our discussion by visiting the number one resource for beginning screenwriter’s everywhere, Mr. Blake Snyder (58):
“Good dialogue tells us more about what’s going on in its subtext than on its surface. Subtle is better (Save the Cat!147).”
In the first few sentences of the paragraph which houses this injunction, Mr. Snyder does give one small tip that is useful in creating subtext. He tells us to remember that:
“… they [our characters] serve themselves (Save the Cat! 147).”
And that is it. There are no other hints on how to go about making this stuff. It’s more like a command to make it or else. Now, I’m not trying to pick on Mr. Snyder here. I [seriously] am not. I have a lot of respect for his books and I believe they are a valuable resource which I [100 percent] recommend you buy and read [if you have not already]. I am going to the trouble to point this out because I don’t believe ANYONE ever explains how to make subtext. In fact, you don’t even find that many people willing to point out examples of it when they see it.
My guess here is this is because subtext is really hard to spot unless you meticulously train yourself to look for it. Add to this the fact that if no one is going around talking about it, then it’s pretty nearly impossible to ever develop any skill at identifying it because there aren’t any recognized examples to study and learn from.
I am willing to admit that I was horrendously undertrained in finding subtext [and filling my own work with the stuff] until I spent a year of intensive study reviewing over 50 Pro Scripts from great authors who ran the gamut from Quentin Tarantino to Frederic Raphael. Until this year of study, if I noticed subtext, or put it into my own work, it was entirely by accident. But as the year progressed, I began to see that there were patterns at work in the lines of these authors. Patterns we dialogue mortals could imitate and even make our own.
What I would like to do is get permission from the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino to reproduce two of their scenes here, so that we could all learn from them . Since I am not [currently] up to the bureaucratic legwork required to make this happen, we will have to get by on talking about the scenes without the reproduced text. I imagine that it won’t be too difficult to find the scripts online, so you could go that route to follow along. If all else fails, you could just re-watch the scenes in their respective movies.
We will be talking about:
1. The Milk Scene from Blood Simple by the Coens
2. The Milk Scene from Inglourious Basterds by Tarantino
I choose these two scenes because they are paragons of excellence as examples of wonderful subtext, and because they have the surface symmetry of both riffing on Milk as a Symbol. Of course, the authors take this symbolism in drastically different directions. I feel this adds an interesting layer to the rest of the discussion about the subtext in the respective scenes.
First up will be Blood Simple.
In this scene, [bartender] Meurice sidesteps [bar owner] Marty’s manhood by insisting on offering him a glass of milk instead of a glass of liquor. Marty is trying to impress [bar patron] Debra by asking Meurice for his “usual”. Meurice responds with the glass of milk because this is Marty’s usual when he’s not trying to impress pretty bar patrons. Of course, every man knows that no other man wants to be seen getting a glass of his “usual” milk in front of an attractive woman. Meurice’s actions make Marty into a child whose manhood is not up to the task of satisfying a beautiful woman.
By showing us how easily and with how much malice the people in Marty’s world defy his direct orders [even when Marty is paying them to follow his orders], the Coens are character building through subtext. We now know two things about Marty after watching this scene and just from watching this scene:
1. He needs to feel like the people he thinks are inferior to him are treating him with the respect that he thinks a superior person should be treated with.
2. No one in Marty’s world treats him with this respect because he has not earned this respect from anyone in his world. The people in his world have as little allegiance to him as they can visibly display without jeopardizing their claims to his money.
Meurice makes a big deal about the milk being Marty’s “usual” drink in order to embarrass him with the fact that his drink of choice is the drink of choice for children. (61)
Now we’ll take a look at the way Quentin Tarantino turns the same sort of childhood versus adulthood power connotations [that naturally surround drinking milk] on their ear in the opening pages of his script, Inglourious Basterds. The scene in question begins the script and it is between Col. Landa and French farmer Perrier.
If you will remember, Perrier opens their interview by offering Col. Landa a glass of [what seems typical (62) for the time period, geographic location, and context] wine. Landa refuses the offer of wine and instead asks for a glass of the dairy farmer’s milk.
As we saw in Blood Simple, the most usual/typical connotation that accompanies milk is that it is the preferred drink of children. The reason Meurice is able to so easily humiliate Marty in front of Debra [by pointing out that milk is his usual drink] is because milk is guaranteed to evoke thoughts of childhood. And childhood is, by accepted cross cultural definition(63), a time of subservience, or abdication to authorities higher than the self.
Tarantino recognizes the subtextual message hidden in the dialogue about the milk. Naturally, he builds on this by having everything Landa says after he begins drinking Perrier’s milk be unquestionably polite. Landa speaks as though his job of hunting down and exterminating people were no more than a 9 to 5 and he were no more than a middle manager bored to incredibly polite tears by his duty to the company. All of this dialogue is given as Landa continues to sip away at Perrier’s glass of milk.
The cumulative effect of all this subtext and symbolism is that Tarantino delivers one of the most violent and threatening scenes in the history of film. The audience understands that Landa is the type of antagonist who does not lose. From the first 8 pages, and all because of a glass of milk, we are going to fear for anyone who tries to out maneuver Landa. We are afraid from the first 8 pages, and all because of a glass of milk, that our protagonist, Shoshanna, is going to lose.
Now that we have defined subtext and given two masterful examples of what it looks like in action, we can begin the process of thinking about how to mine our characters for opportunities to present it in our stories.
Subtext Step One—Know Your Characters
Oh I acknowledge this step must seem like remedial writing 50.5, but I swear it’s true that in every script without subtext, it’s immediately clear that the author has not put in the work to learn who her characters really are. Let’s go back and pick on Marty again from Blood Simple. We’ll see if we can find evidence for the idea that the Coens conceived of him as a living breathing person. In other words, we are looking for evidence that the Coens treated their character Marty as though he were a real person from whom they were just taking dictation.
Every fact we learn about Marty supports how insecure he is in his ability to command respect and how sincere he is in his desire to be able to do this one thing. He wants to be the kind of man that people instantly prostrate themselves before and, maybe even, fear.
1. His house is ostentatious and tasteless.
2. It is, literally, brimming with hunting and fishing trophies.
3. His wife is not even close to his age bracket.
4. He hits on every pretty woman that sits at his bar.
Doesn’t this sound like exactly the kind of man who would hire a lowlife private investigator to kill his wife the moment he suspects her of cheating on him. This guy is thirsting for the one and only thing the people in his world will not give him.
The Coen brothers know Marty so well, they have Ray come back to the bar, after he has stolen the affection of Abby [Marty’s wife], to collect the last few dollars Marty owes him for bartending. You can almost feel Marty thinking in the ensuing scene, ‘you humiliate me by taking my wife from me, AND THEN you come back and rub it in by asking for a couple dollars?’ That is genius level subtextual writing. The kind that only comes from pure knowledge of who your character is, as a person.
Our job as authors is to treat our characters as though they are related to us and we’ve been experiencing their behavior and speech patterns for years.
And that last italicized part gets to the core of what this whole segment is trying to say. I’m sure that if you imagined a situation in which your wife, husband, or father, were the central figure in your script, you would be able to write lines for your wife, husband, or father, that anyone in your family would recognize as coming from the mouth of that person.
Subtext Step Two—Minor Characters should GRATE against Major Characters
Look how well the Coens do exactly this during the bar scene from Blood Simple. Marty, a virility obsessed man who fails at being properly virile, is placed into a situation where his manhood is judged inadequate by the attractive Debra. The person who is making him look inadequate [by comparison] is his employee, Meurice—a person who is contractually required to treat Marty with respect.
The Coens have sent minor characters into their major characters orbit in order to show us who Marty is without having to tell us who Marty is. By the time this scene starts we already know that Marty is the type of man who likes to collect badges of virility. Attractive women are one of the badges of virility that men like Marty have been trying to collect for eons. Allowing Marty to be beaten in this pursuit by his subordinate, Meurice, gives us everything we need to know about Marty in one sweet expositionless scene. It is truly a masterpiece of subtextual writing.
Tarantino does the same thing in the scene from Inglourious Basterds we looked at above. The foil to Col. Landa’s sociopathic display of human cruelty is the French dairy farmer Perrier. But this French dairy farmer isn’t your average French dairy farmer, this is a guy who believes in ideas so much that he is willing to put the safety of his family and his livelihood on the line to shelter a Jewish family from Nazi persecution. We get the feeling, from the few minutes we spend with Perrier that this French dairy farmer is a man of uncommon resolve. He will not be dissuaded from his pursuit of his principles by regular sorts of pressure.
The speed with which Perrier’s resolve melts during his ensuing discussion with Landa, tells us far more about the kind of man Col. Landa is than it tells us about Perrier. We don’t leave this scene feeling that we were wrong in our initial assessment that Perrier is a resolute man of principle; we leave this scene thinking that Col. Landa is a person who makes other people feel Irregular Sorts of Pressure. Because of these facts, this scene is also a masterpiece of subtextual writing.
Undeniably, our example scenes come from writers who are uncommonly gifted when it comes to great dialogue. However, that doesn’t mean that we, less gifted writers, can’t emulate the tools that they use to make their scenes crack with the electricity of their genius. We may not have the gift, but that does not mean we can’t write lines that feel like a gift. Filling your scenes with minor characters who naturally point at the strengths and weaknesses in your major characters is another trick that will help make average dialogue stand out.
Subtext Step Three—Be Your Character’s Psychological Profile
This might seem like a narrower version of the step one injunction to know your character, but this is actually a completely different point of view on who your character is. I think the distinction between One and Three is important so I’ll try and tease it out from two different directions.
The first tool for differentiation between the two steps involves how you look at your character as an object in time.
Step One asks you to view your character as a completed time segment. When using this tool to write dialogue you are thinking about how the fact that your main character’s mother was late to pick her up from school once in the third grade might be affecting her now as she waits for her super-secret government contact to drop off the flash drive that she needs.
The Step One perspective sees the totality of your character’s life and writes her lines from the experiences that have caused her to be the person she is in the story you are telling.
The Step Three perspective also has a time component but nothing about this perspective is completed at all. When you “be your character’s psychological profile” you are trying to give yourself present-tense knowledge of your character’s story. You try, in so far as you are realistically able, to experience the world you have constructed as your character. This doesn’t mean saying stuff to yourself like, ‘What would Clarice do here?’ It means tearing your gaze away from the screen on which you’re typing and mentally immersing yourself in the context that the words on your screen imply. I’m recommending that you visualize your characters in their situations, in there scene locations, and then see those situations and locations through their eyes.
In temporal terms, you should think of yourself as having an infinite sense of deja vu for your main characters.
If you prefer not to think of it in temporal terms, another way to grasp the difference between One and Three is to think of your character as going through a list of questions on an intake form at a doctor’s office.
Perspective One can answer all the general life questions about genetic history, minor surgeries, and allergies to red dye number 40. Perspective Three is the one that then goes into the room and tells the doctor where it hurts.
The three steps I’ve outlined to this point are great, you will find that they all appear, rampantly, in the dialogue of great screenwriters. I believe they are the building block, or genetic material, of great dialogue and I believe [with great certainty] that any writer can make these techniques her own.
Algorithm 7 (For Mining Subtext)
1. Know your character.
2. Make sure minor characters grate against major characters
3. Be your character’s psychological profile
4. Break your characters into positive and negative traits
5. Run dialogue through the lens of these positive and negative traits
If steps 1-3 are the foundation, then 4 and 5 are the sticks and stones of great subtext-laden dialogue. They are, in a sense, more passive than 1-3 in that they don’t require any sort of empathy or perspective sharing with your characters. When using steps 4 and 5 you should feel exactly like a clinician. This is where you get out your microscope and pin each of your character’s lines to a rectangular plastic slide—after your first draft is completed.
The benefit of doing this is twofold:
1. You will see whether you’ve written interesting characters because interesting characters always have fairly extensive lists of positive and negative traits. If most of your characters don’t have this, then something is amiss.
2. You can examine each line under the harsh, artificial lights of the clinician’s laboratory. Now you will know if you wrote what you wrote because it fit the traits of your character or, if you wrote what you wrote because it fit the story.
Not writing dialogue that only advances the story is the reason that the search for subtext is so important. If you keep your aim on subtext, then you will avoid the low-hanging fruit of dialogue that tells the story. This kind of dialogue is incredibly enticing. Every writer will fall victim to its intoxicating effects from time to time. It is my belief that the algorithm for subtext provided above will immunize you against that threat. There just is no way a line of dialogue can pass through those five steps and then continue to exist solely for the sake of the story.
57 Clearly I don’t actually believe this, or this segment would have ended at the question mark which preceded this, 57th, footnote. (I also want to go ahead and acknowledge that my addiction to footnoting is going to require the intervention of a quality program.)
58 I highly recommend reading and studying Mr. Snyder’s Save the Cat! books.
61 Insult is added to this injury when the audience realizes that there is no chance Marty is going to impress Debra because Debra is already impressed with Meurice.
62 If you are trying to keep the comparison between films going, you would want to substitute “usual” for typical.
63 As recognizable as a smile.