SUCCESSION PART 2: How To Write Subtext In Your Dialogue

SUCCESSION PART 2: How To Write Subtext In Your Dialogue

In the last podcast we looked at the engine of Succession. We looked at the way each episode was put together, and the way that all these characters come together in each episode to create the season.

So today, rather than thinking globally, we’re going to think locally. Rather than looking at the big structure of the piece, we’re going to look at one little teeny-tiny scene from episode 7.

And the scene starts, if you want to watch it, around 27:07 and ends at 28:20. So we’re talking about a scene that’s a total of one-minute thirteen seconds.

What’s really cool about this scene is that it features all the secondary characters of Succession.

These are secondary characters who are not only secondary characters for the audience but are also secondary characters within the social circles of their own family.

These are the boyfriends and girlfriends, and wives and fiancées: Marcia, Willa and Tom.

Marcia is the wife of Logan Roy, the Brian Cox character in this piece, the King Lear, the Rupert Murdoch, the great patriarch.

And Marcia is a highly intelligent, complicated woman, and it’s pretty clear that she loves her husband. But it’s not entirely clear if she can be trusted or not. She seems to have her own agenda, and it isn’t clear how much of that agenda is about protecting the husband, and how much of that agenda is about solidifying her own power.

Willa is Connor Roy’s…well, let’s just call her a girlfriend.

Actually she’s his paid escort with whom he’s madly in love, and who is putting up with his affection and his desperate desire for her to play the role of his wife and move in with him in order to further her career as an actress and playwright.

Then you’ve got Tom, discussed in detail in last week’s podcast, who’s the trickster character, the fiancé and soon to be husband of Shiv Roy, the scheming and politically savvy daughter of Logan Roy.

And Tom isn’t the greatest person in the world. In fact, he’s the worst possible version of new money. He’s a person obsessed with the power and ridiculousness of being rich. He’s a guy who’s small in the family, so he throws around his power in places where he has it.

But Tom is also deeply in love with Shiv, and deeply unaware that she might not be a person he can trust.

And what’s happened in this episode is that the entire Roy family has convened for therapy.

This meeting has been called by Logan, who has basically realized that if he doesn’t do something his share prices are going to fall. He needs to do something to create some kind of positive photo-op that suggests the family is coming back together after a big falling out between himself and Kendall that was way too public.

So Logan has called for this reconciliation, and with the exception of Kendall, all the children have come willingly, a bit curious, surprised, and maybe even hopeful that dad actually wants therapy.

And of course that isn’t what’s really happening. What’s really happening is dad wants a photo op.

Even Kendall Roy shows up, and that’s a big deal because Logan just placed an article through his media sources suggesting that Kendall, who in the previous episode failed a vote of no confidence on his dad, was back on drugs. This article has not only cost Kendall his faith in his father, it has also cost him any chance of reconnecting with the one woman he loves, his ex-wife, who now thinks he’s back on drugs even though he isn’t.

But Kendall Roy decides to show up, even though his plan to reconcile with his family doesn’t actually turn out well. He ends up at a bar instead, where he’s soon drinking and getting high with some locals.

Regardless, everyone has descended on Connor Roy’s beautiful mansion in the desert for this big moment of reconciliation that isn’t going to happen.

And the secondary characters of Succession, Marcia, Willa and Tom, have all been kicked out.

Willa is used to this. Everybody plays status games with her. She’s used to getting kicked out of family pictures, kicked out of family meetings.

But this time, it isn’t just Willa that has been kicked out. This time Marcia and Tom have been kicked out as well, and the family bloodline is being clearly enforced because who’s in that room and who’s out of that room really matters.

And so this is why we’re going to look not at what’s happening in the room where the big drama is happening, but at what’s happening outside of the room.

We’re going to use this scene from Succession to talk about a concept that’s extremely important to all screenwriters: subtext.

Part of what makes Succession such a powerful series, part of what makes the performances so incredible, is the use of subtext by the writers.

There’s a tremendous amount of subtext to almost every line in Succession.

Which raises the question, what the heck is subtext?

What does it actually do? How do you actually create it?

For a lot of writers, subtext is just a place of anxiety, wondering, “does my dialogue have enough subtext in it?” without actually having a clear understanding of what subtext is and what subtext does.

So let’s define subtext for a moment.

Subtext happens when there’s a slight difference between the primary objective and secondary objective of the character.

Primary objective is what the character is doing on the surface, and the secondary objective of the character is what the character is doing under the surface.

Sometimes this is a conscious disconnect, where the character is consciously talking about one thing in order to imply another.

Sometimes this is a subconscious disconnect, where the character truly believes they’re coming for one thing, truly believes they’re acting on one intention, when they’re actually acting on another.

We’ve all done this.

If you’ve ever broken up with somebody and decided that you have to return to their apartment and get your favorite pair of socks back so that you can finally have closure, you’re consciously telling yourself the primary objective: “I’m going to go get closure.” What you aren’t telling yourself is the secondary objective: “I’m going to try to get back together with my ex,” or, “I’m going to try to sleep with my ex.”

Sometimes the gap between primary and secondary objective is very conscious. Sometimes it’s under the surface and the character isn’t even aware of the secondary objective. They’re only aware of the primary.

But what happens— when you can feel that secondary objective bubbling up underneath the primary objective, when you can feel that extra layer of pressure pushing up against what the character is doing on the surface— that’s subtext.

When you start to think about subtext in this way, you don’t have to think about subtext like a technique. Instead, you can use your intuition to guide your writing of subtext.

You can simply connect to the primary and secondary objective of the character. You can connect to, “What are they doing on the surface?” or, “What are they talking about on the surface?” And then you can feel the pressure between that and what’s bubbling up for them underneath the surface.

And there are lots of different things that can bubble up.

We already talked about objectives. I want to get closure: primary. I want to get back together with my ex: secondary.

But there are other kinds of secondary objectives as well.

There are emotional needs.  I want to get closure and get my socks back: primary objective. I want to feel love: secondary objective. I want justice: secondary objective.

So sometimes it is a disconnect between a tangible goal and a primal core need driving under the surface, and in order to get in touch with that, all you have to do is get in touch with that primal core need in yourself.

You want to feel those two things happening at the same time as you write the character, and just to look for the moment where—“Poof!”—that one thing bursts through the surface.

The third kind of difference between primary and secondary objective that can create subtext is something called status games.

And status games is something I would love to discuss a lot further in a future podcast. It’s also something that I cover in depth in my Write Your Screenplay classes.

Status games are about the dynamics between people as they try to raise or lower their own and each other’s status in order to feel better about themselves.

Status games happen all the time. They happen with every relationship, with every character. And I’m not going to go into all the different kinds of status game relationships because that’s a multiple hour lecture.

But, if you think about your relationships with your friends, sometimes you raise your friend’s status in order to raise your own.


And sometimes you raise your status in order to lower somebody else’s status: “Dude, you know that I know fashion, and that shirt…give me a break.”I’ll give you an example of this: “Hey, look man, you know that I know fashion, and, dude, that shirt looks awesome.”

And sometimes you lower your status in order to raise somebody’s status: “Dude, I don’t know a damn thing about fashion, but that shirt is freaking awesome.”

And sometimes you lower your status in order to lower somebody’s status: “Dude I don’t know anything about fashion, but that shirt… give me a break.”

So there are lots of different kinds of subtext. There’s subtext where it is primary objective versus secondary objective, where you have a conscious goal and an unconscious goal, or a conscious goal and a second conscious goal that are in tension with each other.

Sometimes it’s the tension between a primary objective— the conscious goal— and the emotional need underneath.

And sometimes it’s the pressure between what’s happening on the surface, which in this example is a little bit of a fashion critique, and what’s happening under the surface, which is raising or lowering your own or somebody else’s status.

And there’s a lot more we could talk about with status. Status is one of the most complicated and exciting things we get to do as writers because it’s one of the things that makes our writing feel real.

Because the other level of status is that everyone has a status in the room that changes depending on who you’re in the room with, and everyone also has a status in themselves that is pretty much constant. Some people feel high status and are low status, and sometimes people feel low status and are high status. There are many, many, permutations of this.

 

So now that we have a broad overview of how these different elements work, you can understand that subtext is really a tension between what’s happening on the surface and what’s happening underneath.

And if you want to write great subtext it isn’t about getting technically good, although there are technical tricks that we can teach you. It’s really about connecting to that pressure in yourself to feel both the wave and the undertone in your own emotions as you write, to feel the two things happening at the same time with the characters.

What’s happened to all three of these characters in Succession that is causing all this subtext is that all three of their statuses have been lowered.

All three of these characters have found themselves exiled to the outside while the real stuff happens inside.

Structurally, the real stuff that the audience is interested in, on a secondary structure leve, is knowing what’s happening with Logan and Connor and Roman and Kendall and Shiv.

But also, more importantly, on a primary structural level, those characters, Marcia and Willa and Tom, want to be in that room.

They want to be as important as the people that they’ve married, or are marrying, or are connected to romantically. And the circumstances have clearly proven to them that they are not.

All of these three characters find themselves in a place where their status is demoted. And so, all three of these characters are trying to feel better about themselves.

Now we’re going to play a little clip from that scene so you can listen to it, and I’m going to do a deep breakdown of it (read transcript)

So, Marcia’s first line. Marcia looks over at Willa, the prostitute, and Marcia is feeling crappy about herself. She doesn’t like being outside, sitting next to a prostitute and a future husband who she thinks is below her step-daughter. She doesn’t like being exiled from her husband’s side.

What Marcia does is begin a status game with Willa. And you can feel from the very first line the pressure between what’s happening on the surface and what’s happening underneath.

Marcia says to Willa, “Tell me, do you think you’ll always do what you do?” And Willa, of course, is a little taken aback. She can’t imagine that Marcia would be talking to her about being a prostitute right now.

So Willa tries to redirect. She says, “What, with theatre?” And Marcia clarifies, because Marcia, in fact, does want to point out that Willa is a prostitute right now, because Marcia wants to lower Willa’s status in order to feel better about herself.

So Marcia’s primary objective is to get Willa to admit she’s a prostitute. The secondary objective that is creating the subtext is to increase her own status by lowering Willa’s.

Poor Willa says, “What, with theatre?” And Marcia says, “Yes, and what you do for money…” which is not what Willa wants to hear.

And Willa says, “Uhhuh. Uh, well you know I like my life, and you know I kind of just go with the flow, so yeah I think I’ll just, you know, slide right over into producing or writing or directing…”

There’s a primary objective once again.

The primary objective for Willa is to deflect this conversation away from her prostitution. The primary objective is to refocus the conversation and to brand herself as the writer/director/producer of theatre: the artist rather than the prostitute. So that’s what’s happening on the primary level.

And on the secondary level what Willa is trying to do is increase her status in order to feel better about herself. She’s trying to increase her status in the eyes of Marcia and Tom.

Even though Tom isn’t saying anything, Tom is so important in this scene because Tom is the audience. Tom is the person in front of whom this drama is playing out, in front of whom Willa can be raised or lowered in status.

So you have Marcia trying to knock Willa’s status down, and you have Willa trying to raise her status up.

But that isn’t what either of these characters are thinking!

Marcia is thinking, “I’m going to make her admit she’s a prostitute.”

And Willa is thinking, “I’m going to try to prove that I’m an aspiring artist and that in fact I’m moving up to the big time… I’m sliding right over into producing/writing/directing. I’m getting more. I’m going to be more of an artist than I am today.”

So, having failed in her first attempt to get Willa to admit she’s a prostitute— so that Marcia can feel better about herself, so that Marcia can punish Willa for being the person who she has to sit outside with in exile, so that Marcia can punish Willa for feeling like her own status has been diminished— Marcia tries a different tactic.

Marcia’s primary objective is the same. She wants to get Willa to admit that she’s a prostitute, so that Willa can feel worse about herself and be punished, so that Marcia can have justice, so that Marcia can raise her status and feel better about herself.

But watch this new tactic she takes.

She says, “I knew a woman in Paris. She did what you do. She was very intelligent.”

So, isn’t this a wonderful little rope-a-dope move here?

You can feel that secondary objective still underneath, but she’s trying a new technique: instead of being mean she’s going to be nice. She’s going to suck Willa in and gain her confidence.

So at first, when she says, “I knew a woman in Paris. She did what you do,” Willa is thinking, “Oh my God, is she going to talk about prostitution or writing?” But once Marcia says, “She was very intelligent,” Willa relaxes. She says, “Oh thank you, oh my God!”

Willa starts to think, “I might actually be connecting here. Maybe it worked. Maybe this woman is actually seeing me as an artist. Maybe she wasn’t actually trying to call me out as a prostitute at all. Maybe she doesn’t actually know. Maybe she just suspects…”

And Willa’s whole emotion changes because now there’s a primary objective, which is to connect, to feel the praise of a mother figure, to actually feel connected to the family: primary objective. Secondary objective—protect myself because I don’t know if this woman has got a right hook coming for me.

And Marcia has a new primary objective, which is, “I want to get to know her,” but the same secondary objective, which is to force Willa to admit she’s a prostitute to make her feel worse about herself so Marcia can feel better.

Marcia continues with this tactic since it’s working. She says, “And do you want children?” Willa thinks, “Oh my God!” This is a little bit complicated. She says, “Um I don’t know. Um, maybe one day,” because there’s a part of her going, “Oh my God, is she actually accepting me as a potential future daughter-in-law? Is she actually welcoming me into the family?”

So there’s a primary objective, which is to be accepted into this family, and there’s a secondary objective, which is to protect herself.

So Marcia sucks her in a little deeper, “Don’t wait. That’s all I will say.”

And for one moment it starts to seem like maybe this is Willa’s chance to actually be accepted. Maybe this is her chance to actually be part of the family. Maybe being exiled out here is actually going to start a connection, because after all, here is this mother figure giving her advice.

Of course Tom jumps in.

Tom says, “The old biological clock starts ticking. You could always freeze.” Primary objective, change the subject.

Tom has been watching this uncomfortable conversation and his primary objective is to change the conversation from “Willa is a prostitute” to “let’s talk about eggs.”

Marcia isn’t going to let that happen.So her primary objective shifts. Her new primary objective is to shut Tom up, and her secondary objective is to put Tom in his place, to raise her status by lowering Tom’s.

“It’s a way of putting off life,” she says. Let’s put the kibosh on that idea.

Tom, who has also been exiled and isn’t feeling great about himself, takes this moment to try to reassert his point of view, “Well, I’d like Shiv to freeze. Embryos, not eggs. Little bit of me in the bank. Thought about that?”

So, having failed to get what he wants from Marcia, after having his status diminished, Tom tries to help: primary objective. Secondary objective: raise his status by giving some advice to Willa.

At which point Willa says, “Ah! So much advice. Wow!” because she is, in fact, feeling overwhelmed. She’s feeling both the text and the subtext, the primary and the secondary objective.

Willa is feeling on the one hand this family might be accepting her and might be welcoming her in, and at the same time she’s feeling the pressure that at any moment one of these people could turn on her and hurt her.

She’s feeling in herself the primary objective of connecting, and the secondary objective of protecting.

And just as Willa feels most overwhelmed, Marcia comes back. Primary objective: to return to her story about her friend from Paris. Secondary objective: to put Willa in her place and get the justice she wanted from the very beginning, to lower Willa’s status and raise her own.

And watch how she sucks her in.

“You know, my friend from Paris who was your way, she actually was murdered. It was nothing to do with her being a prostitute. It was to do with a restaurant that went poof.”

And you could see what she does here.

She’s been struggling this whole scene to get Willa to admit the truth. She’s tried a bunch of different tactics, and when it doesn’t work she goes in for the kill. If Willa is not going to admit it, she’s going to say it herself.

You can feel at that moment the completion, right? Now it’s out in the open: Willa isn’t a part of this family, Willa isn’t being welcomed with open arms, Willa is being diminished and threatened.

You can feel at that moment the power dynamic rise.

Marcia has the upper hand over both of these characters, and that’s what brings the scene to a completion.

In lesser hands, this is a boring scene.

This is a scene where a character tells a story about a character who we don’t even know, who isn’t even in the episode. It’s a scene in which a bunch of characters discuss embryos versus eggs, and where the big bombshell is a bombshell that we already know! Everybody knows that Willa is a prostitute. All three of these people know it. Willa knows it, Tom knows it, Marcia knows it. Everybody in the family knows it.

On the surface, in the text, there is no bombshell. There is no structure. There’s nothing going on but a bunch of talk.

But the pressure between what’s happening on the surface and what’s happening underneath, the want, the emotional need, and the status games that are happening between these characters, give a level of fireworks to this little tiny moment that makes what’s happening on the outside feel as important as what’s happening on the inside.

Now, here’s what’s very important: you can’t do this by thinking about it.

You can’t create this kind of structure by carefully planning the primary and secondary objective.

If you do that, your writing is going to be less like life.

If you do it purely consciously, purely by planning, what’s going to happen is that your writing is going to feel technical. Because that isn’t how this happens in real life.

The truth is, in real life, you have subtext all the time.

You have pressure between what you’re doing on the surface and what you’re going for underneath.

You’re pursuing emotional needs that you aren’t even aware of all the time. You’re pursuing objectives that don’t match with your conscious objectives all the time.

We always have these multiple layers happening in us, and we’re not usually planning them, just like Marcia isn’t fully planning them.

Marcia doesn’t know at the end of the scene that she’s going to hit Willa with the zinger. Marcia knows that she’s going to keep on maneuvering until she gets a way to get that zinger in.

So if you think about subtext purely as a technique— and again, there are a million techniques that you can learn about subtext and that I’d be delighted to teach you— but if you think about subtext purely as technique, what you’re going to end up with is something that doesn’t reflect what happens in the real world.

But if you think of subtext as something you do all the time…

If you start to notice the subtext in you and the different layers of texture in your primary and secondary objective…

If you begin to recognize the different levels of texture between what you think you want and what you’re actually pursuing, between what you’re saying and what’s bubbling under the surface…

If you learn to connect to the feeling under the surface at the same time the character is pursuing what they want on the surface…

If you learn to feel both of those wants at the same time as you write, to dip and dodge just like Marcia and Tom and Willa, until you find your place to strike, until the moment opens up where the secondary objective can actually be met…

If you allow that to happen, then the rest of the work is just craft.

The rest of the work is just working out of that intuitive model that you’ve created, that intuitive rough draft—which is going to be dripping with subtext—and then compressing and honing and shaping the lines in order to bring that subtext to the future, in order to bring that subtext to the surface.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. David M. Stamps 3 months ago

    Jacob, I’ve taken some courses on “Subtext” but never have I heard it explained so clearly. You make me have to take your class because I want to incorporate this into my process. Blend it with what I already know to find a new level of authenticity in my work. The way you explain it makes it clear that you’ve mastered this element of writing. Thank you for this podcast it only gets better with time!

    • Author
      Jacob 3 months ago

      Hi David! So glad you’re enjoying the podcast so much! And glad you’re interested in the class. Let me know if you need some help figuring out the best program for your goals. 🙂
      Jake

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