Beneath the Surface

Lately, when I’ve heard people talk about the movies they’ve seen, invariably I’ve heard phrases along these lines:

• Stunning visuals
• Bad script
• No character work
• Script okay, but not memorable
• Rich in cinematography, but dialogue poor

The last comment really resonated with me, because I love dialogue. I’ve memorized whole sections of dialogue from movies like The Princess Bride and Moonstruck. Not so with the movies I’ve seen lately. In fact, I can’t think of a single line of dialogue from any of the movies I’ve seen in the last four months. This is not to say that I disliked those films. They were very enjoyable.

As you know, dialogue and characterization go hand in hand. Dialogue can reveal a character’s motives and help move the plot along. Good dialogue can be fraught with tension.

I brought up dialogue, because I’m reminded of some feedback I received on a chapter I’d written, which centers around a family dealing with a crisis. The friend who’d read the chapter mentioned that she wanted to feel worried about the main character, but didn’t. While she complimented the writing, the scene just didn’t have enough tension. I later stumbled upon an article online that helped me realize why that scene was so troublesome.

In the article, “What Can You Learn from David Mamet About Adding Subtext to Your Script?” Justin Morrow mentioned this:

In all good drama, no one says what they want. . . [D]ialogue (or conversation, depending on what plane of reality you happen to be inhabiting) is all in the subtext, the hidden motivations and secret engines that drive our interactions.

The author went on to talk about Mamet’s screenplay for the movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, a 1992 movie adaptation of Mamet’s award-winning 1984 play. But what really caught my eye in that article (which you can find here), is this quote by Ernest Hemingway (sorry, David Mamet):

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

In my scene, the characters said what they meant (i.e., that they were angry or hurt), because I thought directly stating what was going on created tension. But the scene lacked subtext-—those simmering undercurrents that let you know there is more to a scene than meets the eye.

The following excerpt is from “The Light of the World,” a short story by Hemingway.

When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.
“Give me a beer,” I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.
“What’s yours?” he said to Tom.
He drew that beer and cut it off and when he saw the money he pushed the beer across to Tom.
“What’s the matter?” Tom asked.
The bartender didn’t answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, “What’s yours?” to a man who’d come in.

You can infer by the bartender’s actions that he has a low opinion of the narrator (Nick) and Tom. Though the dialogue seems sparse, I felt the tension of this scene, because of what the bartender didn’t say.

If I had written that scene, I probably would have had the bartender show his disdain by saying something mean or sarcastic immediately. But I love the fact that Hemingway didn’t do that. He showed the tip of the iceberg and let the reader infer that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Does every conversation have to be as subtle as the one Hemingway wrote? No. But considering the subtext can make your dialogue memorable.

What was the last movie you saw or book you read that had memorable dialogue or a scene of tension that you thought the author/screenwriter handled well? What engaged you about that dialogue or scene?

Glengarry Glen Ross movie poster from Subtext image from Dialogue image from

58 thoughts on “Beneath the Surface

  1. I had similar comments from a friend who writes fiction for adults. “Everyone says what they mean,” she said. That might be healthy discourse in real life, but it’s not good for fiction!

    • So true, Laura. I had forgotten all about subtext. Just that tiny bit of Hemingway helped me see what was missing in that scene! While I can’t say that short story is one that I like, I like what Hemingway did with that scene.

  2. Now I’m having trouble remembering the last movie I saw that wasn’t a kid’s one. Then again, ‘Paddington 2’ did have a lot of great dialogue. Nothing quote-worthy, but it helped bring out the characters and scenes. None of it really fell flat, which I assume is part writing and part acting. They don’t make many movies like ‘Princess Bride’ where you have great quotes and banter. Although, there is a bit on TV like ‘The Orville’.

  3. A movie I remember with masterful use of this is Manchester by the Sea. To me, the most powerful scene was where Michelle Williams, the female lead, apologized to her ex-husband, male-lead Casey Affleck. You can watch just this scene online, without even seeing the whole movie, and feel its power.

  4. Like you, “I can’t think of a single line of dialogue from any of the movies I’ve seen in the last four months.”

    There might be a reason for that (besides the lack of memorable dialogue). I just read an interesting article from The Atlantic ~> Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read . . . and the Movies and TV Shows We Watch. Here’s a link:

    • That’s a good article, Nancy. Sad but true. We have so much information at our fingertips. Memorization seems unnecessary. Remember how we used to memorize phone numbers? Now, I couldn’t tell you the phone numbers of family members! Why? Because the phone automatically records them and I don’t have to memorize them. A sad waste of a brain.

  5. I, too, cannot think of any recent dialogue that is memorable, but, I can quote lines from long ago movies, especially “You’ve Got Mail” – the best dialogue. Whenever the whole family is gathered and I have prepared a good meal, one of our daughters (usually the younger) will stick her fork in the air with a piece of meat/chicken on it and declare “scrumptious Faye!”, to snickers of all who have seen “What About Bob”. Same daughter loves “The Princess Bride”. Both, along with their silly mother (moi) can recite lines from that movie at any given moment, but, Katy – ah Katy – at the very young age of seven, brandishing a make-shift sword, acting out one of the final scenes, managed to make Mom and Dad blush and rush to explain when she repeated the line “My name is Inigo Montoya (sp?) You keeled my father. Prepare to die – you sob!”. Sorry. I ramble. 🙂 Great post.

    • You brought up some great films, Penny. My pastor also brought up What About Bob. Many of us can quote lines from that movie. I can quote sections of the LoTR movies. But I can’t recall any lines from any movie I’ve seen within the last five years. Yet there are TV shows I saw twenty years ago the lines of which I remember.

  6. Subtext is mechanics of writing, and I love, love, love, love it as a tool. It engages the reader as a partner in the process which maximizes enjoyment, if the process (now) is hidden.

    Seemingly accidental.

    Because there are many tools which writers use, though not highlighted, are common enough. the audience recognizes them as style of the platform they are enjoying. So then they are conscious of it, and keep their eyes/ears peeled for it. They are on high alert in a way.

    But then the power of disappearing the line distinguishing entertainment from life is established. And that’s a bummer. I’d like to disappear into the experience of audience as reality (though residing as such in their emotion). My inquiry is how to disappear the “line.” So at some point they’ve lost the ‘road.’ I dunno…. my fantasy… lol.

  7. The latest memorable dialogue that comes to mind is a Doctor Who episode where his companion Clara, driven by grief, attempts to coerce the Doctor by deception. (I’m conscious of spoilers here, in case Laura should look in on this post!)
    The Doctor, however, is one step ahead of Clara and thwarts her plans, but decides to help her anyway.

    The dialogue unfolded:
    Clara Oswald: You’re going to help me?
    The Doctor: Well, why wouldn’t I help you?
    Clara Oswald: Because of what I just did, I just…
    The Doctor: You betrayed me. You betrayed my trust. You betrayed our friendship. You betrayed everything… you let me down!
    Clara Oswald: Then why are you helping me?
    The Doctor: Why? Do you think that I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?

    Maybe not so much subtext, but I liked this exchange!

  8. As a reader, I don’t really notice the techniques writers use – I tend to only notice dialogue if it doesn’t sound “right”, but often I wouldn’t be able to explain why not. But that quote form Hemingway really illustrates your point brilliantly. I shall look out for how dialogue is handled in the next few books I read…

  9. How about quotes from commercials? Not exactly the same thing, I know, but aside from What about Bob and Princess Bride nothing comes to mind…except two commercials both years ago:
    ‘I miss my nose’ (Nyquil) and ‘That’s okay I can’t say chevrolet’ (when hyundai first came out).
    But seriously, I tend to err on the side of ‘understatement’ rather than spelling everything out and in one of my critique groups, there were those who always wanted everything to be spelled out…leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination IMHO.

    • Laura, I miss the days of commercials with great catchphrases. “Plop, plop, fizz fizz. Oh what a relief it is.” I miss great banter.

      I need to practice writing dialogue more. I’m inspired by writers like Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett who were so good at dialogue.

      • oh that’s a good one!
        About dialogue, years ago, I was better at writing one acts simply because I loved ‘real’ dialogue…and I tend to use it if I’m stuck in a story. But too much is just as mind numbing as pages of descriptive writing – as always it’s a balancing act and looking at the ‘masters’ of the craft and their use of the tools of the trade is always a good idea. Same in music!

  10. An excellent post! The Hemingway scene was great. I often find myself explaining too much because I don’t trust the reader to get it. Sometimes, though, as a reader, we like to be challenged.

    There were quite a few good lines in The Post. I liked the one where an associate of Ellsberg is on the plane with the Pentagon Papers, and the flight attendant says, “Must be precious cargo.” And he replies, “It’s just …” He pauses. “Government secrets.” Meryl Streep doesn’t really explain why she made her decision to publish the papers. The viewer had to go by the context and her facial expressions.

    • Thanks, Nicki! 😀 I keep hearing good things about The Post. I’ll need to see it! Wasn’t it nominated for an Oscar?

      I also tell way more than I need to tell, instead of letting subtext do some of the heavy lifting.

  11. What a great post, so encouraging and inspiring. Dialogs are my weak point, I have to work hard to make them better. You have great advice, thank you so much!

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