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A few weeks back someone asked a question in the screenwriting group about subtext and that he was having trouble understanding it or find examples of it. I didn’t respond to it myself, but started thinking if I remembered correctly what that was, after reading some vague comments about it. And then I thought about a short story I want to write for the longest time in which there are some characters who want to ask each other something, but it’s hard to ask straight out. So, then you think of a different way of asking. Indirectly. Metaphorically.
I got to thinking about why we do this. I thought it was only as a protection of ourselves and our feelings and to avoid getting rejected or hurt directly. But then I remembered that many years back I saw an interesting video on YouTube from RSA Animate about communication, called ‘Language as a Window into Human Nature’, which you can find here and talks about this as well, about ‘veiling’ our requests, seductions etc. and uses also lots of examples from movies and series. They also use the example of an artist in the old days who likes to ask a woman up to have some sex with her and because he is not sure if she would like that, he ‘packages’ the wish and asks instead if she would like to come up and see his etchings. If she says no, the real wish will not be out, he will not feel rejected, because she said no to watching his etchings and not sex, because he never directly expressed this. But there is another reason besides the protection from rejection. It is the protection of the relationship they have. Because he never blurted out his real wish, having sex and it then being out there and it can’t be taken back. Officially he never asked and therefore doesn’t cause any awkwardness in the relationship further on, especially if she says no to the request. When a request is veiled, the real intention remains in the individual and isn’t exposed, even though both parties probably know what was meant.
I’m thinking of the scene with Chandler and Joey from the TV series Friends, where Joey has moved out to live on his own and Chandler has a new roommate, Eddie and Chandler likes the way he makes the eggs. When Joey confronts him, when he visits, the conversation is really of course about whether Chandler likes Eddie more now than Joey and it is expressed in this brilliantly written ‘veiled’ conversation:
Joey: Whose eggs do you like better, his or mine? Huh?
Chandler: Well, I like both eggs equally.
Joey: Oh, come on! Nobody likes two different kinds of eggs equally. You like one better than the other, and I wanna know which.
Chandler: Well, what’s the difference? Your eggs aren’t here anymore, are they? You took your eggs and you left. Did you really expect me to never find new eggs?
Apart from it being exactly what I just wrote about subtext and why, it is also really funny and perfect to use in comedy and can be used very obvious. But I thought of another reason we use it in film and TV and not just let the characters say things directly, because we could. We want the audience to identify with the characters as much as possible and the way they feel and act, don’t we? So, blurting something out directly feels too confronting, even when we see it done by someone else. Sure, we would all like to be more direct perhaps and say what we mean exactly, but this way, and because it is so obvious what they’re talking about, we the audience identify with not only the characters, but also with the exact wish and hesitance that the character has and finding it hard to say what he means and wants directly, and for the same reasons we do.
It’s a no-brainer, when you think about it, but I always like to know why we do something, in this case use subtext, veil our requests. When you know why, it will also be easier to use in writing. Because you know why the character does it. And not just simply because you have to use subtext, because all the books tell you to.
When I shared the RSA Animate link on FB, one guy commented that he doesn’t understand people don’t know what subtext is and that people simply aren’t paying attention, because it is all around us and ‘nobody ever says what they think’. I think we all know what the definition of subtext in real life is, but perhaps some don’t know that that is what the word subtext is. Just like some people are enablers and don’t have a clue what the word means when you tell them. But they sure know what enabling is in practice. And some are more subject to it than others. In some cultures and some families subtext is used more than in others. And some can have a very negative association with it, when that’s the case. But perhaps don’t realize it also has benefits. I sure think so, when you look at the relationship aspect. But it can be overused also of course and you wish some people would be more direct in what they want and mean and think.
I’m beginning to think now, with yet another sidestep from the actual story I’m trying to write, that I like all the psychological parts of storytelling and the character elements more than actually writing a story. But it really is all part of it. And this not an unimportant one. But yes, it is also a passing of the time, while still deciding on what to do now with the story. I’m not that fast. And I don’t mind. At least I’m not wasting time, I do continue learning about storytelling and screenwriting this way. So.