Subtext: Catching the Drift Beneath the Dialogue

Lisa Rosenberg August 3, 2010

Writing great dialogue is an elusive craft.  When one tries to go at it directly, flatly stating the character’s intentions or barest emotions, the characters mutate into puppets, mute and inexpressive save for the writer’s wooden dictation. Great lines of dialogue tend to be indirect, reflective of the character’s secrets and often of unintentional revelations.  When done right, these lines seem to magically ascend from the mouths of the characters, redolent with meaning and emotion, and then settle into our collective cultural consciousness. 

But actually, these memorable lines of dialogue are like the tips of icebergs, floating above vast, submerged mountains of character history, unexpressed emotion, implication, and portent for the narrative to come—which together form the dialogue’s subtext.  Subtext is the unsaid shadow of the spoken words—what gives the words their weight and meaning, reveals the speaker’s fears, longings, knowledge, and perceptions, and tells us about ways in which the characters still need to grow.

Many screenplays feature crisp, smart dialogue, snappy quips that we all wish we had said in real life.  Some of these are parlor tricks, wonderful feats of agile language that don’t reveal much about the speaker; others are workhorses, bearing deeper significance for the story.

The classic film Casablanca (1942, director Michael Curtiz, writers Julius and Philip Epstein) is filled with lines that snap with suaveness and remove.  This is especially true of the dialogue assigned to Rick, the main character, a cool, mysterious American who runs a bar in Casablanca during the war and ferociously protects his private thoughts and hidden past.  But a closer look at the build to some of the film’s most-quoted lines shows what the subtext of the dialogue does for the narrative.  Early in the story, Rick exchanges what seem to be pleasantries, outside in the dark, with the French police captain, Renault, who likes to think he controls local events, until the German commandant arrives to make clear who is actually in charge.  As they talk, a plane takes off from a nearby airfield.  The dialogue goes as follows:

Renault: The plane to Lisbon.  (pause) Would you like to be on it?

Rick: (curtly) Why?  What’s in Lisbon?

Renault: The clipper to America.

Rick doesn’t answer.  His look isn’t a happy one.

Renault: I have often speculated on why you don’t return to America.  Did you abscond with the church funds?  Did you run off with a senator’s wife?  I like to think you killed a man.  It’s the romantic in me.

Rick still looks in the direction of the airport.

Rick: It was a combination of all three.

Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: Waters?  What waters?  This is a desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

In the scene, Renault is teasing Rick about his hidden past.  But he includes real questions, which are aimed at what he senses is Rick’s longing to return to his old life.  Rick won’t answer the question about whether he wants to be on the plane to America.  Renault parries his silence with a series of humorous challenges, each one of which paints Rick as a rogue with a bold attitude and a touch of romance.  Rick’s response about the waters plays on the idea that he is patrician, above the down-and-dirty life that he has, in fact, lived…as we’ll later learn, as a freedom fighter.  The dialogue ends on a note of amusing incongruity. 

But within the course of the scene, the subtext is that of two men who have shared an unspoken camaraderie, almost approaching friendship, in a tense wartime arena in which neither feels safe to completely show his hand.  The questions Rick will not truthfully answer, or answer at all, become a subtext that speaks as loudly in this scene as the words do, about the mutual understanding of two men living lives that are less than they’d hoped for.  The scene also begins to build what becomes among the most important, albeit subtlest relationships in the story, that between Rick and Renault.

The noir thriller Fargo (1996, director Joel Coen, co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen) opens with the lead character, middle-aged car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, making a deal with two hired thugs to kidnap his wife so that he can settle his money troubles with the ransom.  He expects his father-in-law to cover the ransom, and the complicated plan to go off without a hitch.  When one of the thugs questions Jerry about the plan, Jerry spins out the convoluted logic behind it:

Carl: What kind of trouble are you in, Jerry?

Jerry: Well, that’s, that’s, I’m not go inta, inta—see, I just need money.  Now, her dad’s real wealthy –

Carl: So why don’t you just ask him for the money?

Grimsrud, the dour man who has not yet spoken, now softly puts in with a Swedish-accented voice:

Grimsrud: Or your fucking wife, you know.

Carl: Or your fucking wife, Jerry.

Jerry: Well, it’s all just part of this—they don’t know I need it, see.  Okay, so there’s that.  And even if they did, I wouldn’t get it.  So there’s that on top, then.  See, these’re personal matters.

Carl: Personal matters.

Jerry:  Personal matters that needn’t, uh –

Jerry’s oddly elliptical dialogue in the scene does much more than just set the stage for the kidnapping; its subtext yields an intimate look at Jerry’s psyche.  The unspoken implication in the negotiations is that Jerry has planned the events like a math problem, connecting what he sees as one inevitability to the next—but has not weighed in the human factor.  He is a dark joke of a protagonist, dragging himself unerringly toward his own bottomless pit.  The punch line of the section, “personal matters,” isn’t spoken as a quip, but as Jerry’s irritated and confused wish to get the show on the road.  But again, the scene’s subtext tells us that his very disconnect from the personal matter of arranging the kidnapping of his wife is the sure beginning of his own terrible undoing.

Often in a film, the subtext of the dialogue shifts when plot information is passed more than once from a key character to other important characters, telling us more about the characters or investigating the themes in ways that were not part of the first telling.  In Dirty Pretty Things (2003, director Stephen Frears, writer Steven Knight), illegal Nigerian immigrant and hotel clerk Okwe finds a human heart in a guestroom toilet.  When he shows it to his boss, he is urged to forget the discovery.  The first telling reveals Okwe to be an honorable man, yet also one with a secret past.  Later, he retells the story to his only friend, who works in a hospital morgue:

Okwe: Guo Yi, today I also found something.  In a lavatory, in one of the hotel rooms.  Someone’s heart.  A heart.  A human heart.  I’m only telling you because you are a rational man.  Maybe there’s an explanation.

Guo Yi: Maybe some guy with one of the girls had a heart attack.  Rooms are down as empty, so the Spanish guy had to get rid of the body.  Hotels hate dead people.

Okwe: It was a healthy heart.

Guo Yi: So your boss was right the first time.  Somebody brought it with them.

Okwe: Who carries human organs?

Guo Yi: Lots of people.

Okwe: Name someone.

Guo Yi:  Me. OK? Me.  I do it all the time.  I take my work home.  What I’m saying is, I could, if I was weird.  And this is a weird city.

Okwe: Why would anyone do that to a human heart?

Guo Yi: These sound to me like questions.  I don’t ask questions after 11 years here, and I’m a certified refugee.  You’re an illegal, Okwe.  You don’t have a position here.  You have nothing.  You are nothing.  You wait outside.  I’ll go get you those pills.  Stick to helping people who can be helped.

Okwe has gone to Guo Yi because he can’t get his discovery out of his mind.  But the dialogue in the scene is not just concerned with his stated reason of unraveling the logic behind his find.  Beneath the questions Okwe hammers at Guo Yi is his driving need to address what nefarious business is transpiring at the hotel.  As a moral man in a distinctly immoral universe, and a man of action uncharacteristically reduced to waiting and hiding, Okwe is called to action by his discovery, and wants Guo Yi’s reassurance that now is the right time to investigate further. 
Guo Yi’s response—to remind Okwe of his insignificance, powerlessness, and even the danger he’ll incur if he acts, serves as a gauntlet in the scene.  The exactly opposing subtext to Guo Yi’s admonition, “You are nothing”—that in fact, Okwe is a man who must respond—ignites the action of the story as Okwe answers the call.  The subtext gives us not just a deeper understanding of the characters in the scene—one bold, one cautious, but both attuned to the risks involved—but also the uncompromised narrative energy needed to move the story forward.

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