Category Archives: Specs and The City

The Craft of Screenwriting:
Subtext and ‘War of the Worlds’

It’s Throwback Thursday!

I got pulled into a conversation on Facebook earlier this morning about Subtext – it’s uses and misuses in screenwriting –  and I thought TBT might be a great excuse to share an old article I wrote for Script Magazine on the topic (originally posted on August 14, 2013).

So here it is…

Subtext and ‘ War of the Worlds’

Sometimes in life, you need to take a step back and reestablish exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. Screenwriting is about telling a story. We all know that. But sometimes, writers can get so caught up in what’s on the surface – script formatting, how much white is on the page, page count, etc. – that we forget about actually telling a compelling story. Trust me, a script that’s perfectly formatted but has a story that’s as shallow as a kiddie pool isn’t going to sell.

In this week’s column, I’d like to have everyone take a deep breath. Exhale. Feel better? Good. Now let’s take a look at one of the most important aspects of storytelling that’s also one of the most often ignored by beginning writers.

Simply put, subtext is what allows your audience to read between the lines. Your characters may be saying one thing, but their actions, and their reactions to others, will shine a light on the reality of the situation. It’s an added layer of subtly that gives your work depth and makes your characters (and the world they inhabit) feel more real.

This isn’t to say that every “Hello” in your script has to have a double meaning; to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes it’s okay for a cigar to just be a cigar. But in a visual medium, it’s a good rule of thumb to have as much of your dialogue as possible have two meanings – the literal meaning of the words being spoken, and the non-verbal meaning laying just below the surface.

Take a look at this brief scene from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (written  by Josh Friedman and David Koepp).

Here we go. Some nice peanut butter sandwiches.

Rachel looks at him spreading the sandwiches, obviously masking frustration.

I’m allergic to peanut butter.

Ray, surprised, continues to spread the peanut butter.

Since when?



What makes this a perfect little scene for me is twofold. First, not only does the dialogue have the meaning of the text – that it’s time for Ray to prepare food for the kids, and that Rachel is allergic to peanut butter – it also has the layer of subtext that Ray isn’t a very good father and hasn’t been in his children’s lives much. It’s never spoken, but it’s right there. And second, the subtext of the scene also connects us directly to Ray’s internal character arc. While the plot is about surviving the alien invasion, Ray’s internal arc is about becoming a better man; a better father; of finally being there for his children.

If we weren’t sure of this theme before, this scene clearly and efficiently sets it up for the audience.

That’s all from four lines of dialogue that are jam packed with multiple layers of meaning for the characters and have importance for the plot. Go back through your script. Read each line of dialogue and ask yourself what purpose it’s serving. Is there a way you could tweak that line to give it an extra layer of meaning? It’s the difference between someone saying “I’m so mad at you right now” and saying “I’m fine” before slamming the door and walking off, and it can make all the difference in your script.

Until next week, stay away from crazy-eyed Tim Robbins during an alien invasion… and keep writing.

You can read more of my Script Magazine columns HERE.

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Deus Ex Machina and ‘Lord of the Rings’

The latest Specs and the City – my ongoing column for Script Magazine – is live!

This time I’m taking a look at Deus Ex Machina, how it functions within your script, and what lessons you can take from the Lord of the Rings films and apply to your own writing.

Here’s a small piece of my column on Deus Ex Machina:
As screenwriters, we tend to be more than a bit sadistic when it comes to our characters. While the journey they embark on is at the heart of the story, it’s the obstacles we put in their way that make that story captivating to an audience. No one wants to spend two hours watching someone embark on a journey, have everything go according to plan, and then complete their goal with ease. No, as Nabokov famously said, “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” 

Clink the link if you’d like to read more about Deus Ex Machina!

Downbeat Film Endings and ‘The Road’

The ending of your script is of vital importance. It’s the final impression you leave on your readers (if you’re lucky enough to have had them read the whole script), and if you leave a bad taste in their mouth, you run the risk of losing all of the good will you just spent 90-120 pages generating. So what’s the right tone to strike with your ending? Hollywood studios might tell you that audiences want need a happy ending, and that going for the downbeat ending is a death knell for a film’s box office. But that’s not entirely accurate. Continue reading Downbeat Film Endings and ‘The Road’