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The stuff that dreams are made of


Judith Weston talks about subtext

      Subtext : the multiplication of meaning

The  screenwriter  experiences  his  or her characters coming to life when their actions multiply the characters' possible, credible attributes, including their contradictions. Contradiction is essential for subtext to be present - which means that, in dramatic terms, a character's motivations and actions must be grounded in diverse and incompatible desires and needs. The mere addition of compatible, personal details will not produce this multiplication of meaning, for only part of the life of a character actually exists on the page.

A character’s most profound existence – even at the scripting phase – operates as a creative exchange of understanding between the storyteller and the character, mediated by context and subtext by means of text – but not limited to these. It involves not only those elements of character and story that are fully articulated and materialised, but also those aspects that are vividly implied as a result of the imaginative associations inspired in the mind of the audience by what is stated and shown, as well as whatever is discovered as a result of the storyteller’s willingness to engage with character at a meta-linguistic level.

In terms of story, the multiplication of meaning operates largely as subtext, creating the physical, psychical, emotional and intellectual spaces and distances that evoke imaginative leaps and personal, seemingly privileged, observations that promote identification and involvement. Subtext permits an audience to care about what happens. To the extent that the subtext is apprehended, it becomes the audience’s and the tribe’s contribution to the making of the story.

The notion that the multiplication of meaning begins with the storyteller and what the storyteller is able to show or suggest is a vast delusion. The multiplication of meaning is not only a function of the storyteller’s involvement with the characters; it is also a manifestation of the characters’ facility to stimulate discovery in the storyteller, and more specifically, a manifestation of the characters’ willingness to be involved with the storyteller. Stated in a different way – and borrowing a phrase from Pound – the multiplication of meaning is both the cause and the effect of the storyteller’s discovery and affirmation of those unexpected qualities that make a character and the character’s relationship with the storyteller NEW.

The following stories - all of which are rife with subtext - provide some rather remarkable examples of the dramatic potency of effective subtext that stems from the lives of fully realised characters. Most of them have inspired at least one film adaptation. The story by Ms Glaspell, A Jury of Her Peers, was adapted in the early 1980s and made into a short 27-minute film of the same name, which went on to win an Academy Award.

For many years, Hills Like White Elephants was used as a subtext exercise at AFTRS. Students there in the years 2002 to 2007 may remember shooting scenes of it during their first week at the school.

What all of these stories have in common is a wonderful energy that flows primarily from the way in which each embodies a subtext that carries a great deal of the meaning of the story.



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The question – “is it dramatic?” – is really only another way of asking, is it engrossing?  Does the story involve us emotionally? Does it continually cause us to care about what happens next? 

When re-writing your screenplay, look closely at every scene. Does each scene have a beginning, middle and end?  At the end of each scene is the energy still building or have you allowed it to fall? What are the characters fighting for? What do they care about? And how do we know? Where is the evidence? The most memorable and emotionally compelling characters are often conflicted, multifaceted, and complicated; they harbor within their psyches misunderstandings, secret needs and incompatible agendas. Subtext becomes possible whenever a character's contradictions impact on their choices and plans of action. As David Mamet has said, "Characters might hardly ever say what they mean,  but they always say something designed to get what they want."

Because every dramatic scene is – by definition - driven by the actions of anxious characters, striving for something  that  carries  some  kind risk  and urgency, the  screenwriter  must continually  ask him/herself: does every scene involve characters that are clearly fighting for something? .Are the objectives of each character clearly in evidence, textually and sub-textually?  Also, as a result of the characters striving for change, does each scene present or instance change by way of actions that either propel the characters closer to their goal, or move them further away from it?  In other words, does every scene advance the story, and if so, in what way?

What does each scene show us about the protagonist/s and who and/or what opposes or impedes him/her/them? What and where is the evidence for the emotion that is driving them and influencing their choices.

A well-written scene is – in a sense – a story in itself. Grammatically, the scene is the equivalent of the sentence! It has a SUBJECT – a VERB (its action) – and a PREDICATE (the object of the action).

Each scene should be dramatically connected to what has come before as well as organically related to what is about to happen next.  Every screenwriter would do well to look at the last image/action of the last scene and the first image/action of the next scene. A great deal of story energy resides in the interval between scenes - "in the cut". Indeed, the cut is another region of rich sub-textual meaning that many writers ignore because they're too preoccupied with the positive capabilities of the story landscape, and overlook or ignore the screenplay's negative capabilities - those spaces where something happens by implication rather than by assertion. 

A screenplay presents a story through images and sounds (including dialogue) - its "positive capabilities" - but it also builds and presents emotional energy in those places where meaning is implied. In the ironic expression of dramatic action, one is aware of multiple, simultaneous meanings, all of which in one way or another are informative of the characters’ needs and desires, as well as the frustration of these, and the possible consequences that flow from that frustration. The desire may be for love, for power, sex, or fame, for anonymity, or even the desire to rid oneself of desire.

A desire implies a value.  And every desire is the expression, explicitly or implicitly, of a value.  Drama occurs when values are in conflict. Dramatic information is information (expressed through actions) that is concerned with conflicting values.

In the best dramatic screenplays, action is conveyed through text, context and subtext. The dramatic information which the audience is able to infer or surmise (subtext and context) is usually much more potent than the information that is simply given (text).

In the writing and re-writing of your script, ask yourself: to what extent does the script allow the audience to participate in the discovery (and creation) of the story?  How much is merely told and how much is there for the audience to discover (and imagine) for themselves?

The job of a well-made script is to tell a story in such a way that it permits us - the audience – to participate, creatively.

The job of the script is to inspire!  It allows for discovery and surprise. It alludes to and is ironic. It says one thing and means another. It shows one thing, and does another. It is familiar and also unexpected. It lives dangerously through what it conceals. It is a hunting ground for a thousand bodiless voices. It is a dream

Re-writing is the process of discovering enough of the WHAT and the WHY of the characters so that they can show us HOW the energies in the story work.


It is impossible to provide a cogent and useful description (or template) that is automatically applicable to the workings of every dramatic screenplay. The only way to learn about YOUR story is to enter into a relationship with its characters, including the audience, the tribe and yourself (the writer/character), and watch and listen to how these characters respond and behave from one scene to the next, and from one draft to the next.

A draft is a meditation, a probe, an inquiry into what is there and why it is there.

It is a way of uncovering and focusing unexplored leads (the hopes and fears of the characters), an exploration into the hinterland of each character’s psyche and the common origins or essences that relate all of the characters to one another.

Listen to your characters; they know more about their story than you do.

A draft is a lure for feeling – a way of enticing the characters and their story out of the darkness, out of one’s unconscious; a way of turning the story over in one’s hands in order to examine what is there and why.

What endures from one draft to next?

What lies at the heart of this story “machine” – this idea-in-the-making? 

A re-write is a journey, a vision quest. It is part of the process of getting undone, of undoing one’s habits, beliefs, preconceptions and prejudices. The process of “making” a script begins with a series of prejudices, and ends with a series of revelations.

The re-write challenges us to respect both the character and the situation, to continually look, and look again, at what we have seen/heard, not only in terms of what is actually written but – even more – in terms of what is implied.

Scene from Valkyrie in which Col. Stauffenburg (played by Tom Cruise) and two other Nazi officers arrive at an "understanding" concerning the need to arrange the assassination of Adolph Hitler. 



YOU TALKIN' TO ME? - Dialogue & the search for syllables to shoot at the unknown 

SUBTEXT in Casablanca, Apollo 13 and Raiders of the Lost Ark

DISTRICT NINE : What's That in the Sky? Is it a Spaceship? No, it's a Metaphor!

ERIC HEISSERER : On Subtext In Screenplays




A JURY OF HER PEERS  by Susan Glaspell      

HANDS   by Sherwood Anderson    

THE LOTTERY   by Shirley Jackson   


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         Subtext in Double Indemnity     

by Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler, 1944
  • Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck):  Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
  • Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) :  Who?
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
  • Walter Neff:  Sure. Only I'm getting over it a little, if you know what I mean.
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
  • Walter Neff:  How fast was I going officer?
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  I'd say about ninety.
  • Walter Neff:  Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
  • Walter Neff:  Suppose it doesn't take.
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
  • Walter Neff:  Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
  • Walter Neff (grinning):  That tears it.
  • [Phyllis walks Walter to the door.]
  • Walter Neff:  Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then, Mrs. Dietrichson.
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  That's what I suggested.
  • Walter Neff:  Will you be here, too?
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  I guess so. I usually am.
  • Walter Neff:  Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
  • Phyllis Dietrichson:  I wonder if I know what you mean.
  • Walter Neff (exiting):  I wonder if you wonder.