Friday, January 17, 2014


Subtext is what the character means when he/she speaks. We want subtext in movies because people saying exactly what they’re thinking all the time is boring and stale. Dialogue with subtext adds weight and dynamism by using the context of the situation and the state of the character.

In No Country For Old Men Anton Chigurh intimidates a simpleton shop keeper into a deadly coin toss. He doesn’t just come out and say: “If this coin toss doesn’t go your way, I’m going to murder you.” Because that would be boring. Instead they have this chilling conversation:

“What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”


“The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.”

[Chigurh flips a quarter from the change on the counter and covers it with his hand]

“Call it.”

“Call it?”


“Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here.”

“You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair.”

“I didn't put nothin' up.”

“Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it.”

Actors love subtext because it gives them a job to do. It doesn’t take that much effort for them to simply say: “I love you” and mean it. But if you came up with a unique way of saying that, something that didn’t mean “I love you” at all, you bet every actor is going to want to act that scene. As an added bonus: Your scene is going to sound different than the billions of scenes where characters say “I love you” to each other.

The following dialogue is from Punch Drunk Love and it’s a romantic scene where the two leads, essentially, say “I love you” to each other:

“I’m looking at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fucking smash if with the sledge hammer and squeeze it, you’re so pretty…”

“I wanna chew your face and I wanna scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them.”
Subtext is also why you can write understated dialogue and let your character’s actions do the rest. 

At the end of Schindler’s List, all the workers Schindler saved thank him. But they do not say: “Thanks for saving us from dying in a horrible way, great Schindler…” What transpires is simple: Schindler’s right hand man, the Jewish Itzhak Stern, gifts Schindler an inscribed ring. Schindler looks at him, slightly confused, and Itzhak explains the meaning to him: 

“Whoever saves one life saves the World Saves the World entire.” 

Schindler’s thanks Itzhak inaudibly, and puts the ring onto his finger.

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