Thursday, October 17, 2019

Subtext in scene/dialogue

I'm looking for examples of subtext within a scene, especially in dialogue. Any ideas? Here's one-

Let's say that Tommy is keeping a secret from his co-worker Lucy.
He's planning a big surprise party for her birthday Saturday night.

So she's talking about her plans for the weekend.

"I think Saturday night, I might call up Susie, and take her to that
play at the Phoenix. The tickets will cost a fortune, but I've been
saving up."

Tommy's fists stilled in the bread dough. Then, after a moment, he
took up kneading again. "You don't want to see that play. I hear it's

Susie slid the tray of bread loaves into the big oven. "It won three
Tonys. So it has to be good."

"Nah," Tommy said quickly. "Tonys don't mean anything. Look. Really.
Tell you what. I want to see it too. But -- but I have plans Saturday
night. So maybe I can take you-- both of you-- to the matinee Sunday."

Susie glanced back over her shoulder as she closed the oven door. "You
just said you heard the play was lousy."

"Yeah. Lousy for a Saturday night. But for a matinee, it's great." He
plunged his fists back into the bread dough, and said, "Come with me
Sunday. Really. Not Saturday. My treat!"


He's trying to keep her from going, only he can't tell exactly why, so he
pretends it's about the quality of the play. The point is to have him
reveal to the reader that he's deceiving her -- give us a hint of that-- without
telling us (or her) why. So she can pick up on the deception and not
know what it is-- maybe she'll think he's taking another lady to the play
that night and doesn't want her to see him, she thinks.

Just think of how the people around you-- maybe even you :)-- often
converse with somewhat complicated agendas. They're trying to get you to
do something without actually coming right out and saying it. Or they're
trying to hide something. Or they're hinting at something. How do people
do that in conversation? How can you put that complication into words on
the page?

The first step is to be aware that much of the time, people aren't saying
exactly what they mean. :)



Adrian said...

Let's call it what it is: lying. People lie, especially when they're trying to keep secrets.

The reader can be tipped off if they know it's a lie. If, in a previous scene, Tony talks about wanting to see the same show because he's heard so many good things about it, but then he tells Lucy it's bad, then the reader knows he's lying, even if they don't know why. (Is that a sufficient about of "sub" in "subtext"?)

If you want Lucy to also pick up on the lie, you can do the same trick. Give her knowledge of Tommy's desire to see the show, perhaps through a mutual friend, and she'll also know he's lying. Lucy and the reader can come up with their own hypotheses.

The first example that springs to my mind of letting the audience know a character is lying to further their agenda is from the _Star Trek_ episode "The Deadly Years," written by David P. Harmon.

Kirk contracts a disease that causes him to prematurely age, including loss of memory. Kirk forgets that the Romulans have cracked one of the Starfleet encryption codes ("Code Two") and he nearly leaks vital information to them. Later, freshly cured, he demands that obsolete encryption code for an important communication back to Starfleet.

SULU: We're surrounded by Romulan vessels. Maximum of ten. Range fifty to a hundred thousand kilometers.
KIRK: Engineering, this is the captain. I want full emergency power. I want everything within about two minutes. I want the warp drive engines on full standby. Kirk out. Open up a special channel to Starfleet Command. Code two.
UHURA: But, Captain, Code--
KIRK: That's an order, Lieutenant. Code two.
UHURA: Yes, Captain. Code two.

The audience and the crew are left to wonder whether Kirk's memory is still faulty. Will Kirk doom them by transmitting information that will help the Romulans kill them? Then Kirk records this message:

KIRK: Message. From Enterprise to Starfleet Command this sector. Have inadvertently encroached upon Romulan Neutral Zone. Surrounded and under heavy Romulan attack. Escape impossible, shields failing. Will implement destruct order using corbomite device recently installed. Since this will result in the destruction of the Enterprise and all matter in a two hundred thousand kilometre diameter and establish a corresponding dead zone, all Federation ships will avoid this area for the next four solar years. Explosion will take place in one minute. Kirk, commanding Enterprise, out.

It was earlier established that the Enterprise did not encroach the neutral zone "inadvertently," and the "corbomite device" is a bluff Kirk has famously used in the past. So the reader and the crew know he's lying. By sending it encoded with the obsolete encryption, he's lying to the Romulans.

Alicia Rasley said...

that's a great example from Star Trek! (And it reminds me of how much the writers loved to torture poor Kirk. :) Disinformation is such a good plot device, and here also there's the thematic element of Kirk using the evidence of his weakness as part of his strength.

With Tony, the subtext, I would think, is WHY he's lying. The reader can tell he's lying-- maybe even Lucy can... but why? Lying is generally kind of a bad action, so is he bad? No, because he's doing it for a good reason (the surprise party). And then I as a reader (I'm a romantic) would probably leap to the further conclusion that he has a crush on Lucy.

Subtext, at the basic, I think is "under the text"-- so we see what Tony is doing and saying and we don't take that at face value. That's pretty basic subtext, I know, but it does open up the idea that text doesn't have to be all there is, or that it can't be more than it is, that we can write the text in a way that implies or contains far more than what the words would mean if that's all they meant.(I'm getting tangled! But there are layers to text-with-subtext.) The subtext in this case has to be contained, however, in the text.

I think there's also subtext that isn't actually in the text, but in the context, requiring external knowledge or cultural understanding to get, like in Casablanca, when the action takes place on December 3-5 (I think), 1941, and nothing is said about it, but the viewer knows this means that Pearl Harbor is just a few days away, and America's neutrality (like Rick's) is soon going to end. We have to know the historical context to know what this means and get the resonance-- Rick as a symbol of America and his decision to join the fight paralleling America's decision.
And there's another element-- not sure how this works-- that several of the actors (including the one who played the Nazi major) were refugees who fled the Nazis, so that this story (filmed only a few months after Pearl Harbor) was deeply personal for them.

Is there a subtext also in a joke? (Or lie in this case!) When Carl is asked by a customer, "Is this casino honest?" he answers, "As honest as the day is long!" (It's December, when the days aren't long at all.) Layers! The casino is generally honest, but Rick does a good deed just this once (showing how his neutrality is breaking down) to help a young Bulgarian couple trying to escape from the concentration-camp fate. So this once, the casino ISN'T honest, and the day is not long, but it's a good, not a bad, thing.