Subtext: The Underlying Truth

By Michael Schilf · June 2, 2010

The husband strolls in from work. He’s drunk. A lonely meal is set on the dinning room table. A single candle burns. As he hangs his coat, he hears the clanking of pots and pans. He enters the kitchen to see his wife, her back to him. An empty Shiraz bottle on the counter, she takes the last swig from her wine glass. The husband probes, “Hey, Sandy.” She says nothing. Then SLAMS the cupboard. “You okay,” the husband asks. She turns, shooting daggers of contempt. “I’m fine,” she says. Then exits.

Now that’s a scene full of subtext – not much dialogue, but clearly, there is a lot going on. In screenwriting, subtext is all the content underneath that is not announced explicitly by the characters but is understood by the reader or viewer as the scene, sequence, or script unfolds. With dialogue, it’s what the character is saying between the lines, often revealed through a character’s action or reactions. In action description, subtext occurs when we understand a particular action to mean something different or something more than the obvious.