How to reveal character through subtext

Revealing character through subtext in Lawrence of ArabiaOne of the best ways to write better dialogue in a screenplay is to use subtext: what characters really are saying despite what they actually say, or don’t say.

For example, early in “Lawrence of Arabia” when Lawrence, against orders, decides to lead 50 Arabian fighters on a seemingly impossible mission, he is stopped by Prince Feisal just as he is leaving:

Where are you going, lieutenant,
with fifty of my men?

Feisal’s subtext, in that one line of dialogue, reflects:

  • Rank: Feisal’s selective use of “lieutenant” is a reminder to Lawrence that Lawrence merely is a lowly British officer, not an Arabian warrior.
  • Diplomacy: When Feisal says “my men,” he is reminding Lawrence that all of the Arabian fighters are under Feisal’s command; they do not belong to Lawrence or the British Army.
  • Feisal’s measured objection: “Where are you going…?” is meant to remind Lawrence of their conversation the previous night, when Feisal dictated the short-term military strategy Lawrence is defying.
  • Respect, trust: Feisal doesn’t say, “Stop, you insubordinate cad!” even though it is well within his power and authority to stop Lawrence from leaving. Instead, Feisal merely briefly delays Lawrence’s departure; therefore, he does respect what Lawrence is attempting, and trusts him enough to take 50 of his men.

The dialogue would not be as rich if instead Feisal said, “Excuse me, but what are you doing?” or, simply, “And where do you think you’re going?”  The words “lieutenant” and “my men” add layers of subtext.

Even more subtext is revealed, line by line, as the scene continues and the two characters talk in “everyday language.” But it’s the subtext that gives the scene so much depth, with each line of dialogue revealing layers of intimacy between these two characters as well as something of themselves.

Dinner Party Subtext Example

Suppose you’re writing a dinner scene and one character says, “Pass the salt;” that line better reveal something beyond what it says.

Consider the scene: Among the dinner guests is a master chef dining at the house of a star pupil. However, to the master chef the entree lacks the proper amount of salt. How, then, will the master chef react? Already, you can see how “Pass the salt” takes on added meaning. Also imagine the many ways the line can be delivered — even perhaps with a condescending clearing of the throat and gesture towards the salt shaker.

But why stop there? Suppose also at the table is the master chef’s significant other, and in the scene prior the two argued about something completely unrelated to salt and dinner. And suppose the salt shaker is closest to that person. See how this may affect the way the master chef will request the salt? Also, this introduces another layer of conflict. Will that person refuse to pass the salt altogether? Imagine the possibilities here.

Another great example, from “Sideways,” is when Paul Giamatti’s character reveals something of himself — not by saying, “this is who I am,” but instead by discussing the care required to nurture Pinot Noir grapes.

If you think about your how your day has unfolded, consider the social encounters you’ve already had that contained subtext, and apply those personal experiences to your screenplay.

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