Writing Simple Scenes with Serious Depth
by Hal Croasmun
When you read a well written script, you may not even notice the subtext. You are simply experiencing the story and the characters. You are traveling with them on their journey...and it is delightful.
That is the result of good subtext.
But when you write a scene of that quality, it takes thinking. The first draft may just flow out of you, but in order to build in the kind of subtext that has a reader forget their life, you need an understanding of the process and steps to make it work.
Below is a very simple scene that illustrates how important subtext is to the reader's experience of your story. Normally, I use extreme versions in order to make the skill really clear. This scene is the opposite -- simple, normal, easy to write -- but you'll see that it is filled with subtext, as all great screenplays are.
After you read this, you'll understand how important subtext is in your "normal scenes." And once you realize that, you'll naturally find more ways to build subtext into every scene you write.
Below is the opening scene for FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF written by John Hughes. It is a simple scene where Ferris is trying to fake out his parents, pretending to be sick. But it is filled with subtext in many forms.
Pay close attention to my notes as you read and keep an eye out for the subtext that is naturally designed into this scene.
INT. BOY'S BEDROOM
FERRIS BUELLER, 18-years-old, stares lifelessly at CAMERA. His
mouth's open. His eyes are bugged-out. His tongue is fat and dry in
his mouth. He's laying in bed, on his side.
Ferris' parents, TOM and JOYCE BUELLER stand at bedside. They're
in their late forties, early fifties. Handsome, upper-middle class parents.
They're both dressed for work.
He doesn't have a fever. But
he says his stomach hurts
and he's seeing spots.
His lifeless eyes blink.
Tom bends down and touches Ferris' forehead.
What's the matter, Ferris?
Feel his hands. They're cold and clammy.
Tom takes one of Ferris' hands.
Should you call the doctor?
He doesn't want me to.
Why don't you want Mom to call the doctor?
Ferris exhales loudly. He tries to speak but all he can manage is a choked gasp.
Ferris tries again.
Don't make a fuss. I'm fine. I'll get up.
NOTE: From a subtext perspective, we just saw the top layer that covers up the subtext. At this point, we could believe that Ferris is sick and leave it at that. But let's see what the writer does with this...
He starts to get up. Joyce gently pushes him back down.
I have a test today. I have to take it. I want
to get into a good college so I can have a
NOTE: Also, notice that Ferris is saying the opposite of what he means. Even if he is sick, he's telling them he is fine. And if he's faking it to stay home, he is still telling them the opposite of what he really wants.
Opposite is one (of many) way to deliver subtext dialogue.
Watch how his parents respond to Ferris's "Don't make a fuss. I'm fine. I'll get up. I have a test today. I have to take it."
You're not going to school like this.
Maybe I should call the office and tell them
I won't be in.
NOTE: Okay, the parents have bought the cover-up. Their agreement with this layer gives it more credibility.
It also gives us the characters that the subtext will be hidden from throughout the entire script. That is extremely important for the success of "plot-oriented subtext."
I'm okay, Mom. I feel perfectly...Oh, God!
He's gripped by a seizure. His body stiffens and he chokes. His older sister,
JEANIE, walks into the room. She's dressed for school. She's cute and
stuck-up. A major pill.
Oh, fine. What's this? What's his problem?
He doesn't feel well.
Yeah, right. Dry that one out and you can
fertilize the lawn.
That's enough, Jeanie.
You're not falling for this, are you? Tell me
you're not falling for this.
NOTE: Jeanie is pointing to the subtext. We may or may not believe her right now, but either way, she is saying there is something going on under the surface of her brother's actions.
In this case, she is adding conflict to the situation, but she is also making sure that the audience begins perceiving the deeper meaning earlier in the process.
Is that Jeanie? I can't see that far. Jeanie?
Pucker up and squat, Ferris.
Thank you, Jeanie. Get to school.
NOTE: Note the relationship subtext in those three lines. Ferris is goading his sister while appearing innocent to his parents. Jeanie clearly gets the real subtext of his lines and makes the mistake of fighting back with an insult.
In her response, Joyce confirms that Jeanie will be sent to prison (school) while Ferris will receive freedom.
You're really letting him stay home?
I can't believe this. If I was bleeding out
my eyes, you guys'd make me go to school.
It's so unfair.
Please don't be upset with me, Jeanie. Be thankful
that you're fit and have your health. Cherish it.
Oh, I wanna puke.
She glares at Ferris. Her eyes are mascara and vengeance. She slips out of the room.
NOTE: At this point, Jeanie has all the motivation she needs to spend the rest of the movie trying to catch Ferris. And in the midst of her interactions, we get the subtext that Ferris is the "golden child" who can do no wrong...and Jeanie hates that.
I'll be okay. I'll just sleep. Maybe
I'll have an aspirin around noon.
I'm showing houses to the family
from California today but I'll be in the
area. My office'll know where I am, if you
I'll check in with you, too.
It's nice to know I have such loving, caring
parents. You're both very special people.
He acknowledges Tom with a pathetic flutter of his eyelids.
Joyce strokes Ferris' hair.
I hope you feel better, pumpkin.
She leans down and kisses his forehead. Tom pats his shoulder.
Get some rest.
Ferris lets out a wheeze. His glassy eyes follow his parents to the door.
We love you, sweetie.
Call if you need us.
NOTE: And with those lines, the parents confirm their relationship with Ferris -- they buy anything he says. They assume he is as innocent as he acts.
Just notice how all of that was delivered to us through subtext. Now, let's get to the "Point of Recognition."
They close the door. The lock clicks. Ferris' eyes shift from the door to CAMERA. A
sly, little smile crawls across his lips.
They bought it.
Ferris yanks open the drapes. The pall of the sickroom disappears in the brilliant glow
of morning sunlight.
Incredible! One of the worst performances
of my career and they never doubted it for a
(looks out the window)
What a beautiful day!
NOTE: There it is -- The truth. Even more important, we're now at the real meaning of this scene -- Ferris wanted a day off from school...and he's got it.
From a subtext perspective, what have you seen?
1. Situation subtext
2. Character subtext
3. Relationship subtext
4. Action subtext
5. Dialogue subtext
Even more important, you've seen how a simple scene can be given depth just by using subtext. Imagine what you could do with a profound scene.
My recommendation: Focus on improving the subtext in your screenwriting. It will do so much for your writing, your career, and the level of respect that agents and producers will show you.
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||Hal Croasmun is the president of ScreenwritingU. Besides designing over 17 professional level screenwriting classes, he’s designed a complete model of how to integrate subtext into your plots, characters, situations, action, and dialogue. View the full list of ScreenwritingU classes & articles at http://www.ScreenwritingU.com.