There’s Always Subtext

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, argues that hidden motives drive much of our behavior. If so, then to make fiction seem realistic, those who create it will need to be aware of such hidden motives. For example, back in 2009 I wrote:

Impro, a classic book on theatre improvisation, convincingly shows that people are better actors when they notice how status moves infuse most human interactions. Apparently we are designed to be very good at status moves, but to be unconscious of them.

The classic screenwriting text Story, by Robert McKee, agrees more generally, and explains it beautifully:

Text means the sensory surface of a work of art. In film, it’s the images onscreen and the soundtrack of dialogue, music, and sound effects. What we see. What we hear. What people say. What people do. Subtext is the life under that surface – thoughts and feelings both known and unknown, hidden by behavior.

Nothing is what it seems. This principle calls for the screen-writer’s constant awareness of the duplicity of life, his recognition that everything exists on at least two levels, and that, therefore, he must write a simultaneous duality: First, he must create a verbal description of the sensory surface of life, sight and sound, activity and talk. Second, he must create the inner world of conscious and unconscious desire, action and reaction, impulse and id, genetic and experiential imperatives. As in reality, so in fiction: He must veil the truth with a living mask, the actual thoughts and feelings of characters behind their saying and doing.

An old Hollywood expression goes “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” It means writing “on the nose,” writing dialogue and activity in which a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings are expressed by what the character says and does – writing the subtext directly into the text.

Writing this, for example: Two attractive people sit opposite each other at a candlelit table, the lighting glinting off the crystal wineglasses and the dewy eyes of the lovers. Soft breezes billow the curtains. A Chopin nocturne plays in in the background. The lovers reach across the table, touch hands, look longingly in each others’ eyes, say, “I love you, I love you” .. and actually mean it. This is an unactable scene and will die like a rat in the road. ..

An actor forced to do the candlelit scene might attack it like this: “Why have these people done out of their way to create this movie scene? What’s with the candlelight, soft music, billowing curtains? Why don’t they just take their pasta to the TV set like normal people? What’s wrong with this relationship? Because isn’t that life? When do the candles come out? When everything’s fine? No. When everything’s fine we take our pasta to the TV set like normal people. So from that insight the actor will create a subtext. Now as we watch, we think: “He says he loves her and maybe he does, but look, he’s scared of losing her. He’s desperate.” Or from another subtext: “He says he loves her, but look, he’s setting her up for bad news. He’s getting ready to walk out.”

The scene is not about what it seems to be about. Its about something else. And it’s that something else – trying to regain her affection or softening her up for the barkeep – that will make the scene work. There’s always a subtext, and inner life that contrasts with or contradicts the text. Given this, the actor will create a multi layered work that allows us to see through the text to the truth that vibrates beyond the eyes, voice and gestures of life. ..

In truth, it’s virtually impossible for anyone, even the insane, to fully express what’s going on inside. No matter how much we wish to manifest our deepest feelings, they elude us. We never fully express the truth, for in fact we rarely know it. .. Nor does this mean that we can’t write powerful dialogue in which desperate people try to them the truth. It simply means that the most passionate moments must conceal an even deeper level. ..

Subtext is present even when a character is alone. For if no one else is watching us, we are. We wear masks to thinner our true selves from ourselves. Not only do individuals wear masks, but institutions do as well and hire public relations experts to keep them in place. (pp.252-257)

Added 17Sep: More on subtext of sound and images:

The power of an organized return of images is immense, as variety and repetition drive the Image System to the seat of the audiences unconscious. Yet, and most important, a film’s poetics must be handled with virtual invisibility and go consciously unrecognized. (p.402) ..

Symbolism is powerful, more powerful than most realize, as long as it bypasses the conscious mind and slips into the unconscious. As it does while we dream. The use of symbolism follows the same principle as scoring a film. Sound doesn’t need cognition, and music can deeply affect us when we’re unconscious of it. In the same way, symbols touch us and move us – as long as we don’t recognize them as symbolic. Awareness of a symbol turns it into a neutral, intellectual curiosity, powerless and virtually meaningless. (p.407)

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  • efalken

    I was in litigation for 2 years. At one point I lamented to my lawyer, that the case wasn’t about what was mainly considered by the court. My lawyer said, ‘it rarely is.’

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