Professor Michael Green


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Professor Michael Green

  • Professor Michael Green


The Function of Dialogue

  • The Function of Dialogue

  • The Characteristics of Good Dialogue

  • Techniques and Tips

  • Writing Exercise # 11



The Role of Subtext

  • The Role of Subtext

  • The Emotion Beneath the Lines

  • Revealing the Subtext

  • Writing Exercise #12



Lesson 13: Part I

  • Lesson 13: Part I



Subtext is what is going on beneath the surface, the undercurrent of emotions and thoughts that truly motivates the characters to behave as they do.

  • Subtext is what is going on beneath the surface, the undercurrent of emotions and thoughts that truly motivates the characters to behave as they do.

  • Most of the time subtext connects to the character’s needs. It can sometimes relate to what character’s consciously know and want but can’t reveal.



A story’s subtext reveals why characters act the way they do and say the things they do, before and after plot requirements are considered.

  • A story’s subtext reveals why characters act the way they do and say the things they do, before and after plot requirements are considered.

  • Certain actions and dialogue must unfold for the plot to work, but the layer of meaning beneath the plot mechanics goes to the heart of who your characters really are, and why they find themselves in a particular story.



Directors and actors bring a scene to life by determining the feelings, thoughts and motives that lie beneath the actual words and actions of the characters.

  • Directors and actors bring a scene to life by determining the feelings, thoughts and motives that lie beneath the actual words and actions of the characters.

  • Screenplays missing subtext will be missing purpose and power. Action will be on the surface, frustrating the director and actors’ task of realizing the scenes from the subtextual clues in the script.



Subtext isn’t what you write; it’s what you write around. It’s the deeper level of story that can’t be told so much in words but must be shown in actions.

  • Subtext isn’t what you write; it’s what you write around. It’s the deeper level of story that can’t be told so much in words but must be shown in actions.

  • Pause the lecture now and go back and watch the clip from It’s a Wonderful Life.





In real life, people rarely say exactly what they are feeling, especially if those feelings are difficult to deal with.

  • In real life, people rarely say exactly what they are feeling, especially if those feelings are difficult to deal with.

  • More often, people try to hide what bothers them, their personal weaknesses and minor transgressions. They may also lie to protect loved ones or try to gain power or status.

  • This often leads to conflict, as people try to get each other to meet their needs without being up front about them.



In drama, where art imitates life, we aim to show a version of this; the ultimate goal, however, is not to obscure, but to reveal and to create meaning.

  • In drama, where art imitates life, we aim to show a version of this; the ultimate goal, however, is not to obscure, but to reveal and to create meaning.

  • To this end, the screenwriter must know his characters better than they know themselves.

  • Through subtext, the writer lets the audience see what the characters really need beyond what they say they want.



Subtext is used to reveal what can’t be easily told in words; therefore, it has everything to do with need, or unconscious motivation.

  • Subtext is used to reveal what can’t be easily told in words; therefore, it has everything to do with need, or unconscious motivation.

  • If a character’s unconscious need contradicts his stated goal, the scene will play differently than if conscious and unconscious minds are in total agreement.

  • Need comes from a deep part of the character’s psyche of which he or she may well be ignorant.



The character’s need may be the real motivation behind everything else he does in the story. But to grasp this fact the audience must be shown it in a credible fashion.

  • The character’s need may be the real motivation behind everything else he does in the story. But to grasp this fact the audience must be shown it in a credible fashion.

  • A way to understand this elusive concept of subtext is to see it as how the characters, while going after what they want in the story, end up with what they really need.

  • Please pause the lecture and watch the clip from Arthur.





To understand a story, certain exposition must be overtly presented to the audience, and other pieces can be implied.

  • To understand a story, certain exposition must be overtly presented to the audience, and other pieces can be implied.

  • Subtext complements exposition, conveying feelings, thoughts and motivations which may be too complex to tell in words, but which are crucial to understanding a story.



The screenwriter walks a thin line between telling too much and telling too little.

  • The screenwriter walks a thin line between telling too much and telling too little.

  • Tell too much and you lost the audience’s interest. Tell too little and the audience won’t understand the story.



Lesson 13: Part II

  • Lesson 13: Part II



At times, the true motives and emotions of a character are the whole point of a film. Remember our discussions regarding Casablanca.

  • At times, the true motives and emotions of a character are the whole point of a film. Remember our discussions regarding Casablanca.

  • If this information is clumsily handled or just dumped in the audience’s lap, viewer’s will doubt it’s veracity the same way you might be skeptical of a person who too easily tells you his life story.

  • Exposition through conflict.



A character’s motivation carries more weight if it’s closely guarded. Through subtext, the screenwriter allows the audience glimpses or hints of the protagonist’s and other character’s true natures.

  • A character’s motivation carries more weight if it’s closely guarded. Through subtext, the screenwriter allows the audience glimpses or hints of the protagonist’s and other character’s true natures.

  • In this way, the audience is more involved in the story and has a richer experience.

  • Pause the lecture and watch the clip from A Christmas Story.



Subtext should carry a direct relationship to the film’s theme. It becomes the vessel for getting the main ideas across when it wouldn’t be realistic to do so in dialogue.

  • Subtext should carry a direct relationship to the film’s theme. It becomes the vessel for getting the main ideas across when it wouldn’t be realistic to do so in dialogue.

  • When we, as an audience, feel satisfied, something is working on a deeper level. Even if we can’t completely articulate what that is, we’ve been touched in some way. The story feels true.



In a scene the emotion carrying the lines may:

  • In a scene the emotion carrying the lines may:

    • Support the dialogue
    • Contradict the dialogue
    • Have little relationship to the dialogue


When emotion supports the dialogue, the lines reflect what the characters feel. When someone is happy or infuriated, it is hard to suppress. These emotions affect attitudes and actions and these easily filter into conversation.

  • When emotion supports the dialogue, the lines reflect what the characters feel. When someone is happy or infuriated, it is hard to suppress. These emotions affect attitudes and actions and these easily filter into conversation.

  • If your characters’ emotional states find expression in dialogue, remember, there must still must be a progression of emotions within the scene.



When emotion contradicts dialogue, it forces the character to take action contrary to what she says. A character might feel fear and want to hide it or might be angry and be unable to show it.

  • When emotion contradicts dialogue, it forces the character to take action contrary to what she says. A character might feel fear and want to hide it or might be angry and be unable to show it.



Sometimes the whole point of a scene is the emotion it contains. What’s actually being said has practically no bearing on the story at all.

  • Sometimes the whole point of a scene is the emotion it contains. What’s actually being said has practically no bearing on the story at all.

  • Rather than being revealed through dialogue, the emotion may be revealed through action, expression, the visual approach to the scene or information we know from earlier scenes.





In scenes, emotions motivate characters to act as they do. In most scenes, someone is in the grip of powerful emotion, positive or negative, and this emotion influences the scene, how he or she behaves, and how others react.

  • In scenes, emotions motivate characters to act as they do. In most scenes, someone is in the grip of powerful emotion, positive or negative, and this emotion influences the scene, how he or she behaves, and how others react.

  • The audience needs to be aware of the emotions and thoughts affecting the story (No mindreading!) the screenwriter must find ways to reveal or externalize them.



Asking a few questions about the characters and the emotion in a scene can help insure the dialogue strengthens the subtext.

  • Asking a few questions about the characters and the emotion in a scene can help insure the dialogue strengthens the subtext.

    • What must be said in the scene?
    • What can be implied?
    • What doesn’t need to be said at all?


4. What is the key emotion motivating the characters in this scene?

  • 4. What is the key emotion motivating the characters in this scene?

  • 5. How would their respective emotions specifically affect the characters?

  • 6. Would the character have a conscious or unconscious strategy for dealing with emotion? (For example, would he use understatement or directly contradict his emotions with words?)

  • 7. What is the source of the conflict or tension?



Any or all of these questions should help clarify what is going on beneath the surface of the characters.

  • Any or all of these questions should help clarify what is going on beneath the surface of the characters.

  • Once the questions have been answered, you should have a better idea of the subtext and how a character might react to it.

  • Dialogue might be the perfect way to bring the subtext out into the open. You might also use physical attitude, business and atmosphere.



Physical attitude refers to a character’s outward disposition or mood representing his inner emotional state.

  • Physical attitude refers to a character’s outward disposition or mood representing his inner emotional state.

  • Body language, facial expressions, clothes and gestures all provide hints to a character’s state of mind.

  • Unlike a novel, screenwriters can’t rely on narrative to explain complex thoughts. They must reveal them through things that can be seen and heard. NO MINDREADING!



The screenwriter must describe the characteristics of what the audience sees and hears in the action and the parenthetical directions.

  • The screenwriter must describe the characteristics of what the audience sees and hears in the action and the parenthetical directions.

  • Most of the description is of an external state.

  • Remember, don’t direct the actors. Actions you give a character are like lines. “She slaps him” replaces a line. “She slaps him, palm cupped, with a smooth follow-through” is directing the actor. Say what, not how.





Business helps establish a sense of reality and makes a scene more visually interesting. Characters are also further defined by what they do in the scene.

  • Business helps establish a sense of reality and makes a scene more visually interesting. Characters are also further defined by what they do in the scene.

  • The business of doing relates strongly to subtext. A character’s actions speak more truth about her than her dialogue or the dialogue of other characters.



Atmosphere also helps to reveal the character’s inner state by reinforcing it. Weather, time of day, nature, etc. can all contribute to creating a mood that reflects the interior world of the characters.

  • Atmosphere also helps to reveal the character’s inner state by reinforcing it. Weather, time of day, nature, etc. can all contribute to creating a mood that reflects the interior world of the characters.

  • Using the external world to mirror the inner emotions felt by the characters helps the audience share the character’s experience.





Watch the short film Black Rider and analyze the subtext. What is made clear even thought it’s not spoken in dialogue? What theme is the subtext communicating?

  • Watch the short film Black Rider and analyze the subtext. What is made clear even thought it’s not spoken in dialogue? What theme is the subtext communicating?



Watch the clip from It’s a Wonderful Life, Arthur or A Christmas Story again. In addition to the examples discussed in the lecture, please cite two times where you can identify something going on beneath the actual words.

  • Watch the clip from It’s a Wonderful Life, Arthur or A Christmas Story again. In addition to the examples discussed in the lecture, please cite two times where you can identify something going on beneath the actual words.



Pick out a scene from your script that is dialogue heavy and rewrite part of it using a minimum of dialogue to demonstrate the character’s inner states. Use such tools as visual and sound effects, atmosphere, business and physical attitude in rewriting the scene.

  • Pick out a scene from your script that is dialogue heavy and rewrite part of it using a minimum of dialogue to demonstrate the character’s inner states. Use such tools as visual and sound effects, atmosphere, business and physical attitude in rewriting the scene.

  • Post both the new scene and the old scene for comparison.



Next Lecture:

  • Next Lecture:

  • Taking Your Screenplay to the Next Level




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