When developing a story, the writer needs to decide what a given scene is about. Let’s say it’s about Mick (Most Important Character Know) and Sue (Subtle Undermining Evildoer), meeting in a laundry mat. Since Sue is subtle in her approach, she needs to try and win Mick’s attention one small step at a time.
Using the above thoughts, the first draft might come across like this:
The sample subtext scene accomplishes our goal of having Sue subtly approach Mick one step at a time. If she were to come out and say let’s have some fun tonight, he wouldn’t have any interest. But, the subtle approach allowed Sue to test Mick’s perception of his marriage and how soon he might consider trading in for another model.
The scene is also loaded with symbolism and visuals. Since the best scenes are those that live up to the saying, “show, don’t tell,” the scene plays out well cinematically and subtly. This technique also speaks well to subtext.
The below includes the real unspoken story in brackets:
Sometimes it’s good to write the subtext to make sure the scene plays the way it was designed. This can help the writer quickly tweak the story or the subtext that each phrase generates.
In the above scene, we see Mick struggling with his dull life. This is followed by an emotional shift, which leaves Mick filled with the possibilities of being lifted out of his quagmire. The audience now knows that Mick isn’t where he wants to be and is tempted by the possibility of change. We also know that his need for change is greater than the pain of change.
With one simple scene built with nuances and subtext, the audience has learned more about Mick than their childhood neighbors. They have also picked up on the question that was embedded into the scene: Will Mick give in to Sue’s promises for a better life or stay true to his marriage?
By raising a question at the end of the scene, the audience is compelled to watch more of the movie until he or she gets the answer. They need to know if he is a moral man or one who will do anything to get ahead. This also causes the audience to become invested in Mick and may even push him or her to cheer Mick on by the third act.
The power of nuances salted into a scene with subtext driving the story, makes for an interesting and entertaining scene. And, by adding in conflict, which in this case is Sue’s goal for a man who is already married, can up the stakes and increase the audiences’ interest in the rest of the film.
Here is the same scene written by a beginning screenwriter, which lacks nuances and subtext:
In this version, the same key elements are in place, but it carries a very different tone. While the audience will still get the point, it won’t drive their desire to see the rest of the film. Nor will it cause the audience to become invested in Mick.
The scene plays flat because it is. The only fix is to heighten the emotions and raise the question. However, those things can only be done successfully using nuances and subtext.