Sunday, January 16, 2011

No Text Without Subtext

Earlier in this blog, I complained about being overly attuned to the emotional subtext behind people's words in conversations. I have always had a hypersensitive antenna for the nonverbal cues of body language and actions which often contradict a person's words. In Robert McKee's book Story, I recently read this brilliant sentence, "There is no text without subtext."

He was referring to the fact that in any movie scene, if the action and dialogue is only about what it appears to be about, the scene is dead and won't play. In all human interaction, there is text and then subtext. I recognized this idea instantly, because I've seen it my whole life, but never given voice to it before. I felt a little less alone upon reading that one sentence, and more acutely aware of how this knowledge of subtext can help me as a writer.

It made me want to rip into my screenplay, searching for the subtext between the characters in any given scene. What I always saw as a personal weakness I now understand to be a strength. I know it has helped me to be a better parent, because when my kids are saying that nothing is wrong, but their facial expressions and body language are telling me that something is wrong, I can ignore their words and focus on their subtext, which is telling the truth when the words are unable to.

The meaning of our lives is found under the surface, not externally where everyone can see it. Our purpose resides in the deepest layers of our souls, and it provides the subtext to all of our interactions. Most of the time we simply aren't aware of it, but that doesn't mean that it isn't always functioning on some level. I feel like I have permission now to plumb these depths, within myself but also within my relationships, to find endless permeations of emotion to describe and explore.

It's like opening up a whole new world, one without any maps or precedents, just inner landscapes that have always existed and were waiting to be discovered. The great writers throughout history have uncovered these lands, and described them so that we immediately recognize ourselves. These subtexts provide a bridge from one person to another, because we are all hiding these fears and wonders from each other, but are looking for places to connect through them.

Today I'm grateful for this fresh understanding. I recognize that it takes a lifetime to really grasp all of the intricacies of our own subtexts and to find them in others, and perhaps even longer to be able to describe them so they hold meaning for other people. But for today, just the knowledge is enough, and I have the rest of my life to improve on what I know to be true: there is no text without subtext.


  1. Ever read "Hills By White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway? Full of subtext. Actualy topic of conversation is never mentioned.

    Another consideration... people reading subtext where there is none. That can also add another twist to a story. :) Or relationship.

  2. I'll have to check out that book by Hemingway. I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read any Hemingway. I'm determined to get into the classics, at some point, but up until now I've found reasons to put this particular goal off.

    You are quite right about reading incorrectly into subtext. I know for a fact that I do that (I think all of us do) and often it causes a lot of relationship issues, because subtext is tricky to define accurately sometimes.