The True Art Of The Writer

By Cheryl O’Brien

We can consider text as “a message sent and received”. Pictures, statues, paintings and written text are all messages sent and received. Screenplays combine these other art forms to create a broad range of messages sent and received. A completed movie will combine many if not all of the other art forms as multi layered text with many messages sent and received.

Subtext is “a subtle or coded message sent and received.” Subtext is the message under the message. Subtext when made obvious becomes text. Text is received through our eyes and ears. Sending and receiving text is a mental and physical process.

Subtext is received through our intuitions, thoughts, and feelings. Subtext is a mental, physical and emotional process. Subtext is filtered by our own experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and values. Subtext in screenplays can be, and should be, visual as well auditory.

WRITTEN SUBTEXT has many limitations, when framed within the boundaries of a novel or non-fiction book, that are set free in other written forms. In particular screenplays open up a whole range of subtext not available in other written texts. Images, manner of the characters, props used, dress and presentation of characters are all subtle forms of subtext.

Screenwriters need to be aware of the subtleties within each scene, use them, manipulate them understand their uses and the concepts, ideas, and images created that are implied in, or can be inferred from the subtext. It is this careful manipulation of subtext that will make one screenplay stand out from another. A reader will sense something is different with a carefully crafted screenplay with consistent subtext. They may not be able to say what the quality is they can sense, but they know it is there and can feel it.

AUDITORY SUBTEXT: One example of auditory subtext is of one character saying to another “What did I tell you?” This example implies that a conversation has happened some time prior to the comment. Theme music is another example of auditory subtext in a movie although a screenwriter should never specify which theme music should be playing they can certainly suggest a kind of music. i.e. “Sultry sax playing in the BG.”

VISUAL SUBTEXT can be in the manner of actions of the characters, a head toss; the way the characters are dressed, snappily dressed in Armani: the arrangement of props, the bosses umbrella in a separate stand; the presence or absence of items such as clocks, hats, televisions; the order that events occur, child arrives home from school, mother and child leave, dad arrives home from work, dad leaves, mother ad child arrive and go to bed, dad arrives again.

A clock on a wall can give us the text. “Time is moving along”. A plain white electric clock on a bare wall gives us the subtext. “This room is ordinary, functional or office-like.” By association it may also carry the subtext. “No one cares about this room.” It may even be inferred. “Time is all that matters here.”

When a female character steps up boldly to a male character and offers a firm handshake there is a sub text in that action. The subtext could be. “Women are equal to men”. It could also be said that there is a deeper level of subtext and that is the subtext “The writer is a staunch feminist” or even by extension it could be inferred. “The writer is a woman.”

Subtext is the conclusions, presumptions, and assumptions that the receiver infers from the message through the filters of their own experience knowledge and understanding. Text is the message as implied by the sender.

Subtext can be, and often is, manipulated by the creator of the message. Advertisements employ the use of subtext to allow the receiver of the advertisement to infer certain ideas, concepts, and conclusions. Images of sexy, young, athletic bodies all reaching for the same brand of soft drink to slake their thirst implies. “Young people like our soft drink.” This is the text of the advertisement. By extension it also allows the viewer of the advertisement to infer “This soft drink makes you young, athletic and sexy.” This is the subtext.

In newsreels and movies we see the images of soldiers in the bunker scrawling letters home to loved-ones or staring wistfully at photographs of wives and girlfriends. Smiling soldiers giving kids rides on their shoulders or handing out lollies. This carries the text. Our soldiers miss home when they are at war. Our soldiers like little kids and are generous. It also carries the subtext “Our soldiers have feelings and are not all rough and tough. Our soldiers are not the guys out there doing the killing.”

Have you ever noticed in war movies how the allied soldiers all write home, stare at pictures of loved ones, receive parcels of goodies from home. The enemy soldiers are only ever seen ‘sneaking behind bushes’, ‘shooting’, ‘screaming’ blowing things up, and other such negative images.

These two extreme views are loaded with subtext. “We” are the good guys. “We” are strong, and sensitive and loved. “They” are the bad guys. “They” are cruel, cold and sneaky. No one cares about them.

Life itself is full of subtexts. Everyday we use subtext to communicate to one another the messages we really want to communicate. Pay attention to it and use it in your screenplays!

An elderly relative smiling straight into the face of a child says. “You are a good boy. Aren’t you?” The child hears the text and from the tone of voice and facial expression of the relative the child rightly suspects an undercurrent that alters the meaning to. “You had better be a good boy or else.” This is subtext.

At the corporate boardroom table there is the ‘head’ of the table and the ‘foot’ of the table, there is a ‘left of the chairman’ and a ‘right of the chairman’. In a boardroom there are sometimes arranged around the table one or two slightly shortened chairs. These chairs are often put to the side but brought around the table when a member of the board is to be sacked. It is a message. “You are too small for this boardroom.”

Consider how your family is seated around the dining table each night! What is the subtext there?

Subtext is the true art of the writer. Craftsmanship applies to the outward text, grammar, spelling, word choice, and sentence structure. Art applies to the inward subtext, words omitted, incomplete images, colour, textures, shape, implications and inferences.


Cheryl O’Brien lives in Australia, and is a passionate and talented writer turning her hand to and succeeding in poetry, screenplays, short stories, articles and lyrics. In her ‘spare time’ she capably moderates an International Literary Networking Group.