When Gale Hawthorne in the Hunger Games said ‘What if they did? Just one year. What if everyone just stopped watching?’, ‘If no one watches, they won’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.’
Of course he’s talking about the Hunger Games but it’s the deep subtext that gives meaning and power to the words.
What he is really saying is ‘If you don’t watch this movie then they won’t make any sequels’. Very powerful stuff…
On a more serious note…
You are trying to squeeze as much as you can into every word, page, and image of your script. Subtext is so powerful because it’s not on the nose exposition, it can’t be, and it allows the audience to infer their own conclusion of what it means. This is a form of audience participation and will draw them into your story.
Billy Wilder says ‘Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever’.
One of my favourite examples of subtext is in Six Feet Under.The episode is called ‘In the Place of Anger’ and the scene is at 28:40.
Catherine Collins comes to the Fishers to bury her abusive husband who, drunk, has fallen over the side of a boat and has been badly mangled by the propeller. Nate Fischer, hiding a recent AVM diagnosis and the possibility of a brain haemorrhage at any moment, tries to console her.
As Catherine reflects on a wasted marriage, life and time, Nate utters words of consolation, but they seem hollow and lack conviction. We know that he is barely holding it together and we can see it in his face.
Catherine says ‘I just want somebody to help me understand?’ and delivered through subtext, this is what Nate wants too.
Nate quotes C.S. Lewis to her to help her understand the pain and grieving process. Again the subtext here is really Nate trying to console himself and find a way to face his own fear of dying.
The dialogue is for Catherine and the subtext of the dialogue is for Nate. This gives a seemingly normal scene more depth and opens up the inner emotion of Nate’s character to us.
Nate then says ‘It’s going to be okay’.
He says this with more confidence, he believes these words, and his facial expression has changed to hope.
We cut to Catherine whose face is like stone and she says ‘No it’s not’.
These words pierce us as they are said with such conviction we can’t doubt them.
We cut to Nate, his hope is gone, and he is destroyed.
A straightforward conversation with Catherine has revealed everything Nate feels about his potentially terminal brain tumour.
Nothing was ever directly spoken about it. It was all delivered through subtext.