by Mathew Allen
Many people say that the secret to good dialogue is subtext. But many of those same people also struggle to identify exactly how to create these elusive layers of meaning. I’ve attempted here to elucidate and distinguish between what I think are the four kinds of subtext, and identify precisely what makes each work. So, without further ado…
Dramatic irony known only to the audience. Dramatic irony lies at the core of almost all subtext. And by dramatic irony, I mean the audience knowing more than one or more characters in a scene. So, the most extreme kind of subtext is in scenes in which the audience knows more than all of the characters, such as in the case of period films. And this kind of audience hindsight can be played for meta-laughs, such as when Cal, the villain in Titanic says, “God himself could not sink this ship!”
A Secret Known Only to One Speaker
Closely related to No. 1 is another form of dramatic irony, in which at least one of the characters is in on the joke. This category includes passive-aggressive behaviour, in that the character’s true intent is only known to them and us. In a subtext-laden scene in Gangs of New York, Cameron Diaz’s character asks DiCaprio’s, “Have you got any scars?” To which he replies, “One or two.” We know that, by this, he means both physical and psychological scars (due to already knowing about his past). But Diaz’s character has no way of knowing this; thus, we are on his side at this point. This is, perhaps, the most common form of subtext—and one good rule of thumb for employing it is to make sure a character lies or at least conceals the truth as much as possible.
Subconscious revelation by the speaker. Another kind of dramatic irony is something known to the audience but only now dawning on the character in, for example, the form of a Freudian slip. Back to the Future is basically one large, reverse Oedipus complex played for laughs. And this fact dawns on Marty McFly’s mom when she says, “This is all wrong. I don’t know what it is. But when I kiss you, it’s like I’m kissing… my brother.” This kind of subtext differs from No. 1 in that other characters, such as Marty in the scene mentioned, can be in on the joke.
The last kind of subtext is unusual in that it does not rely on dramatic irony. Instead, it’s a form of code or communication which is simply fun for the audience to decipher. This fourth category includes basic sarcasm, which differs from passive-aggressive behavior in that the meaning is not intended to be hidden. But the most famous form of this kind of subtext is that of the sexual variety. In the aforementioned scene from Gangs of New York, DiCaprio is shocked to hear that Diaz received a gift from the bad guy. In response to learning of this, he accusingly asks, “What you give him, then?” When they then cut their love scene short over DiCaprio getting jealous in this manner, Diaz ends by saying, “Well, you’re quicker than most fellas. Generally, they wait till afterwards.” I’ll let you decode that one for yourselves.
So, please try to add some more subtext to your dialogue (or identify precisely what kinds you’re using, if already a pro). Numbers 2 and 4 are the most common and easy to use, as they’re intentional on the part of the speaker, and so you may want to start there…