“There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smokescreen. When true silence falls, we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness.”
Subtext is a very important element of dramatic writing. It is also one of the most mysterious, as it exists almost literally between the lines. A character can reel off a long speech about one thing, but their motives are very clearly lying elsewhere. The process of figuring out those intentions is what involves audiences in drama, and encourages them to invest in a character.
To use a popular example, I will look at Breaking Bad. I have long considered this show to be a high point in television drama. Why? Well, one reason is because of its masterful use of subtext. One scene in particular comes to mind, and it occurs in episode 1 of season 3.
(If Breaking Bad is still on your to-watch list, what follows is rather spoilerific. Just giving you the heads-up.)
This episode shows Walter White, a chemistry teacher and the show’s protagonist, trying to placate a hall full of students in the aftermath of a huge collision between two airplanes that saw season 2 come to a close. The incident has rocked the city of Albuquerque. Many lives were lost, and the students are trying to figure out how to deal with it all.
By this point, Walter White is well on his way to becoming a serious player in the crystal meth business. He already has the blood of several people on his hands, and one of those deaths was the indirect cause of the collision itself. So what does Walt say to the mourning students?
“Look on the bright side.”
His speech begins by detailing how much worse the disaster could have been. After all, the planes weren’t full, and they weren’t as big as the 747s that crashed in Tenerife in the ’70s. It could have been worse. And, as if that’s not enough, he ends by saying that the students don’t know about the Tenerife crash because “people move on.” We survive, we cope, we get on with life after the hard moments pass. And those moments could always be harder.
On the surface, Walt’s words could be seen as a cold address that is just telling the morose student body to buck up. But after watching Walt’s character develop for 2 seasons prior to this, his speech could be interpreted in a few ways.
As he is a terminal cancer patient, Walt could be alluding to his family’s coping strategy when his inevitable death occurs. He could also be alluding to their ways of dealing with the revelation that he is a meth kingpin, which is more than a possibility. Or, my personal favourite: we could be getting a very sinister insight into the way Walt’s mind is growing into a state of criminal psychopathy.
He is not seeing this as a disaster; he is seeing it as one side of a risk assessment calculation. And, as his interests are not tarnished in any way, the damage is considered negligible. As long as the wheels of business keep turning, nothing else is important. Not only this, but it suggests a shifting opinion of what Walt considers to be real chaos. Can you imagine the Walt from episode 1 of the first season delivering such a speech?
Considering the way Walt’s arc develops throughout the remainder of Breaking Bad, I’d say this speech is a very skillful piece of subtextual writing. It allows the character to address a situation that is occurring then and there in the action, whilst also providing an insight into what led him to that point and clues as to what lies ahead. Walt’s attitude in this 2-minute speech is what drives him until the end, and it is an attitude that is often left to fester between the lines.
It is not what a person says or does, but why they say or do it that is important. Those motives might not always be crystal clear, and the jury will always be out when it comes to the ‘right’ interpretation. But to write scenes that lend themselves to interpretation is a fundamental goal for any writer.
As Billy Wilder said, paraphrasing Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”