“S” is for “Subtext”

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

Dorothy Nevill, Author


Humans rarely say exactly what they mean or want – in many situations, we may not actually know or be able to clearly express our needs. For most of us, this level of unbridled transparency is reserved for a special few privileged relationships. When we fail to mirror this honest complexity on stage through the use of Subtext and its communicative kin ambiguity, our dialogue can start to feel remedial or inauthentic. Paying attention to what is between and beneath our lines makes what may have otherwise been rather mundane dialogue sizzle with emotion and specificity.


Two friends are hanging out together on a porch, dangling their feet over the edge of a swing couch for two.

Player A: “I like your shoes.”

Getting to the Bottom of Subtext

The concept of subtext is rather simple – what you say shouldn’t necessarily align exactly with what you mean or want. If this technique isn’t commonly deployed in your scene work, here are some helpful pointers to help you escape the perils of cartooning.

1.) Don’t say what you’re thinking. Or, if you prefer, don’t think what you’re saying! This is really just a textbook definition of the technique but it’s helpful to have this basic formula front of mind if your dialogue has become anemic. The lowest hanging fruit on this particular branch of the subtext tree tends to be sarcasm which expresses the exact opposite of your truth, so “I like your shoes” really means “I hate your shoes.” A slightly more subtle variant of this energy would be colloquially known in the United States as “southern charm” which tends to similarly disguise critique with the veneer of apparent politeness. But subtext needn’t be oppositional to prove effective. “I like your shoes” could as easily mean “Aren’t those my shoes?” or “I wish I could afford shoes like that.”

2.) Communicate through the silences. I think it’s also a mistake to forget that subtext needn’t exclusively accompany spoken dialogue but can also be powerfully expressed through silence, body language, and behavior. Maintaining an active inner monologue while you’re onstage allows you to consciously process and react to material as it emerges. When your subtext is clear and rich, you’re often able to achieve as much, if not more, with a look or gesture than a whole volume of words. Perhaps our friends have just come out the other side of a rather unpleasant argument, and A’s observation serves as a peace offering of sorts. Player B’s responding look, exhalation, or gesture (or lack thereof) is probably ample to reveal whether or not they are similarly ready to make amends.

3.) Tell a lie every now and then. Perhaps not the best advice in our day-to-day transactions but lies are such a provocative subset of subtext as they open up great story potentials and relationship tensions. These are helpful if only the speaker is aware of the untruth – Player A’s distaste for B’s shoes is known only to them – but take on even greater utility when other characters, players, or the audience recognize our statements as false. Perhaps Player A has spent much of the current scene railing against this particular pair of shoes with B, in which case the complement now lands as a shared outlandish joke. If A has established in a prior scene with a different friend how much they loath B’s fashion sense but that they now need to butter them up in order to get an invite to that party of the season, the same lie takes on a more surreptitious hue.

4.) Explore subtlety and nuanced tactics. Subtext is a great delivery system for exploring varied tactics. Yes, characters can just candidly ask for what they want, but this strikes me as the exception rather than the rule in most dramatic actions. There is a lot of fun and dynamism to be mined from playfully deploying subtle or mischievous moves. When tactics become too repetitive or transparent, they frequently lose any potential for success. But when our characters play at the top of their intelligence and infuse these choices into their subtext, even mundane transactions can become fresh. Perhaps Player B has been eating a delicious bag of chips without offering to share any. “I like your shoes” in this context could actually be a gentle move towards eventually securing a snack.

5.) Develop a taste for irony and ambiguity. As subtext implies some form of tension between your words and your meaning it’s useful to develop a palate for irony and ambiguity. Specificity and clarity – two admirable improvisational goals – need not be in conflict with a subtextual inclination towards complexity. The concept of specific ambiguity (discussed here) creatively exploits this fruitful marriage. My above examples suggest some purposeful design on the part of Player A but it’s also exciting to just lace a strong emotion or energy under the dialogue trusting that the why will figure itself out eventually. In this way you could make a very specific emotional choice (excitement) with an equally elusive intent that adds mystery to an otherwise pedestrian exchange. Just making any strong choice with conviction will usually set you on a scenic path towards discovery.

Final Thought

People are complicated beings with multiple competing agendas that are expressed through equally opaque speech acts. Our characters should reflect these realities too. It’s a little sobering when you realize just how malleable text can become when it’s infused with thoughtful or brave subtext. And perhaps a little surprising that we’re actually able to communicate anything with definitive precision. So, with that in mind, “I like your shoes!”

“S” has been a Herculean letter! You can check out all the “S” entries here.

Related Entries: Ambiguity, Objective, Secrets, Specificity Antonyms: Cartooning Synonyms: Meaning

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Text/Subtext

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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