How to Discover the Subtext of a Script

Subtext is arguably the most important focus for actors to grasp in their acting. The iceberg serves as a simplistic illustration, showing the subtext as the majority of ice which lays underneath the surface or words of the script.

The most common mistake for actors to make is to cling onto the top portion and go off the words alone. As soon as we read a script we figure out how the words should sound, instead of finding out the “why” behind the words. The “why” behind our actions.

This is how you find the why, and why it is so important.

There’s a million ways to say “hello”

An example of subtext and not reading it comes from the classic line in a ton of scripts: “Hello”. Now here’s the scene: Jim meets Pamela at a train station and says the greeting.

Without digging and looking into the subtext of the scene, I would say hello like a greeting. That would naturally be the first thought most people have when they see the word. However, oops! plot twist. The “Hello” line was really a code to signal the sniper to hold their fire and spare the life of Pamela.

Thing is I would never know this just reading the line, I would need to do some digging to find the juicy piece of subtext meat. Here’s how.

Do some digging and ask the tough questions

The best thing you can do in order to find subtext is by asking a bunch of questions. Ask questions about your character, about the circumstance, the relationships between the characters, and your motivations and goals.

To find out what’s really going on underneath the scene you need to comprehend how things actually work in life.

Using substitution will aid you in understanding the subtext of a scene. How would you personally react in this scene, or in these particular circumstances? Have you ever experienced something like this?

For example, I was workshopping a scene from the movie Wall Street, as part of a university project, and the subtext of the scene included the themes of betrayal and hurt between the characters. The girl and guy were previously in a relationship but now they differ when it comes to their work.

I thought about how I reacted when I felt betrayed by someone, similar to the guy in the scene, and it really helped me.

The hidden gem is your foundation

From my personal experiences, I learned when you study the subtext and marry it with the physical action in the scene, you will remember your lines like there’s no tomorrow.

Here’s another thing to remember: when you’re in the scene you must trust the subtext you studied will remain with you during the scene. Let your focus be on the other people in the scene and what you’re doing and let go of the subtext. It’ll stay with you as you practice living in the moment.

The subtext, once learned, will be your foundation. Once you know the why, everything else will start to piece together.

Subtext is vital to learn. Don’t rush the process of studying your script, but ask the hard questions. It’ll take time to figure out what’s going on in a particular scene, it’ll take a little digging.

But the digging is worth it when you find out the precious subtext in the end. To me, finding the subtext in a scene is like finding buried treasure. It’s a precious gem just waiting to be discovered.

Subtext should act as your support. Don’t look to your words for your support. When you focus on the lines, they will try their hardest to escape you. But when you focus on the why of the scene, and everything that’s going on underneath the surface, you’ll find your anchor, and it will make a world of difference.

Actors, I cannot stress it enough: discover the subtext!

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  • Keaton is an actor and writer who works with the Initiative Production Company in Brisbane, Australia. Native to Alaska, he enjoys staring at the stars while contemplating the meaning of life.

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