Subtext is a powerful thing. Words can only mean so much in real life. If you want to get the truth of what someone is telling you, you have to look deeper. Body language, gestures and reflexes. So how can we implement that into our writing?
First, let’s look at how not to do it. Which of course usually means having your characters state the obvious through their dialogue. A consistently egregious offender of these would be the Star Wars prequels. Every character, particularly Anankin, seem to love stating exactly what they are feeling at this moment. He didn’t need to tell us he hates the Tusken Raiders because we literally just watched him massacre an entire tribe. Padme doesn’t need to tell him that she loves him in every other scene because we should be able to see that through a naturally evolving relationship.
As with all things in good writing, the key is balance. You need to be able to trust in yourself, and especially your audience, that subtle hints will go noticed. Perhaps not the first time, but definitely the second or third times reading. Subtlety can be difficult to manage, but if you aim for consistency, your audience will be able to discern who your character is, simply by how they physically react to different situations and people. Give Alan Rickman’s performance of Severus Snape in the first Harry Potter film. JK Rowling told him, and only him at the time, the secret past of Snape and his relationship to Harry and his parents. This allowed Rickman to react in an unusual way of knowing and understanding that no-one truly understood until the last books had been released, and suddenly, everything clicks.
Nuances and subtlety are key for subtext surely, but there are ways to further develop it. Through actions, reactions and decisions, we can show our audience who our characters are without saying a word.
In the days of silent films, creators only had a few seconds per film to utilise with dialogue screens. These were used to punctuate moments with awareness, often used as set-ups for the next gag.
Charlie Chaplin is of course remembered as a legend for his silent films, but his true genius lied within his physical presence. In Modern Times we see his confusion, delight and occasional terror front and centre upon his face. We don’t need title cards to tell us that he’s experiencing these emotions, because they are just natural reactions for his character.
In City Lights, we see him become absolutely smitten with a blind flower-girl. Again, we don’t need to be told that, or that she is naturally sweet, as we can see the looks he gives her and the way she interacts non-verbally with the world.
Of course, it is difficult to utilise the techniques of a different medium from a different era, but there are still lessons to be learned from watching the classics. Telling a story with absolute minimal dialogue about how a relationship grows can teach you more about nuance then you might think. Use gestures and facial descriptions, and you may be able to tell a story without even having to worry about the dialogue. Dialogue can always be tricky to get right, sometimes the voices are inconsistent, the words repetitive, or sometimes it’s just too damn boring. If you can get your characters voice heard through complete silence however, than you’re on to a winner.
Voices through action
Having your characters voice heard from silence doesn’t always have to be through nuance, sometimes it can be front and centre through your most action orientated moments. While always tricky through novels, these elements can shine through screenplays, comics and animation. The way a character simply moves during moments of tribulation. Take Spike Spiegel from the seminal anime series, Cowboy Bebop. The way he reacts during fight scenes tells you everything you need to know about him. Hands in pockets, leaning back, swift, calculating and decisive. The character has resolved himself to nihilism and an eventual death, so his demeanour suits it. He accepts death as a natural by-product of his profession, but he’ll still do anything he can to avoid it and get the job done.
Outside of action, we can utilise these lessons to other instances. We can implement our characters personalities through big movements that don’t relate to action. An amazing example of this can be found in the very first episode of Umbrella Academy, where the five reunited siblings dance to the same song, but separately. Even if you have no interest in watching the series, I would recommend this scene, an absolute highlight of the entire series, simply just for entertainment’s sake, but looking further, it tells us everything about each character, The way they move, interacting with the rooms and how they do it, everything is there, plain as day, and it’s done in such a memorable, fun and unique way, that somehow it’s one of the best scenes in the entirety of both seasons, and it was delivered within the first hour.
Another great example comes from one of the all-time best animated series (Don’t fight me on this), Avatar: The Last Airbender, in that every nation has it’s own bending style used to manipulate a certain element, but again, it can go even further. Each technique has it’s own movements; Earth benders are strong, pushing forward with harsh punches and stout stances. Water benders are fluid, almost dancers, carrying the weight of their medium tandem with their body, flowing and flexible. Fire benders extend their breath into power, their moves are taut and final, every move is aware of the destructive nature of their element, and they utilise that with every kick and punch. And lastly, the air benders, peaceful nomads who prioritise life and fun over the destructive nature of their element. They use their manoeuvres not only to evade and move, but also, as the series progresses, you can tell their beliefs cause them to pull their punches. Aang, Gyatso or Tenzin could easily use their manipulation techniques to destroy structures and desecrate areas, but they use it in a reserved, concentrated style, that allows them to target their threats precisely, with minimal collateral damage.
These techniques in Avatar go even further, individually, each stance can change. Admiral Zhao’s fire-bending is rash, powerful and wild, exactly like the man like himself, but his former master Jeong-Jeong is conservative and defensive in the way he moves. While Katara’s water-bending is focused on precise strikes and healing, while the swamp benders use their manipulation to control vines and plants, and the infamous Hama uses it to control the very blood in people’s bodies. Each of them use their movements in different ways for their different techniques, and each of these different movements perfectly encapsulates each character in such subtle ways, all through the power of movement.
Harkening back to the earlier example of Snape, one of the best ways of revealing the truth within a characters hearts is through subtle nuances.
The first time I read through A Song of Ice and Fire, I was delighted when I realised through my own deliberations that The Hound, a surly, hateful and scarred man, was afraid of fire, which had burned his face terribly, right until a few sentences later when Tyrion thought to himself: He is afraid of fire. I had already come to that conclusion based on the sole descriptions of how The Hound had reacted to the flames around him.
Returning to Star Wars, many fans were annoyed with many of the edits made by George Lucas, especially in Return Of The Jedi, when Darth Vader sacrifices himself and throws the Emperor down a pit. Originally, this was completely silent, but the DVD edits changed it so he screams a half-hearted “Noooo” as he does so. We get that it adds some melodramatic flair, but after three films and an entire legacy later, melodrama was the last thing we needed. We knew this was an important move for his redemption by the way he simply moves, less the actions he takes.
Finally, the last nuance to talk about concerns acting in general more than it does writing. Specifically, a lesson I learned watching Troy Baker and Nolan North play through The Last of Us, which they both starred in. Troy, playing Joel, reveals a lesson he learned from the game’s director, Neil Druckmann. During a truly shocking death in the game’s very opening scene, Troy reveals how overconfident he felt himself as an actor during this scene; veritably throwing himself into the role and pouring his heart out in grief, but he was dismayed to be forced to do the scene again several weeks later. This time, Neil wanted to change it so we didn’t see a distraught and broken Joel straight away, but rather several stages in several stages before we get to that conclusion. The wonderful clip is here, (Troy talks about the scene between 18:00 and 25:00, but the whole episode and series is fantastic). This allows us to see decisions happening in real time in the characters brain, as the character thinks and decides. There is no grand gesture or movement, just a desperate father pleading.
For humans, no decision is instant, no conclusion happens in a second, especially in times of crisis. We all need moments to think, dwell and decide, and we can use subtle moments to show that to our characters, and every step makes them that much more human, and that much more real.
Using examples from real life
Me and my father are very close. Have we ever told each other we love each other outside of moments of crisis? No. He was taught by his generation not to express feelings like that, and subliminally, that’s what he taught me, whether he wanted to or not. Despite toxic masculinity, however, we both know how much we mean to each other and my brother. We do this through gestures, gifts and ‘manly’ hugs. Not a word is ever said about who we are on the inside, but we all know from how we act.
In different examples, I know when someone is flirting with me by how they touch their hair and how warm their eyes are when I look at them. Conversely, I know when someone wants me to end the conversation based on whether they are edging away or how their eyes dart to where they need to be. As humans, we are always sending signals to the other through unconscious movements. Language has only existed for a few thousand decades, and we’re still struggling to evolve to find ways to fully tell someone what we mean by words alone.
These signals are everywhere, in every person. Learning them individually is how we learn to trust. Learning them collectively, is how we learn to understand. Think about the three people you are closest to in the world. If you were trapped in a locked room with them, with a bomb (god forbid) and a timer that’s slowly ticking down, how would they react? Differently, I have no doubt. Some might start praying, one might try to diffuse the bomb, or try to open the door, one might try to organise the others, some might just give up.
Every person has a different reaction to every situation. Every person has a tell and a subtle tic when something makes them unhappy or uncomfortable, or if something makes them happy and comfortable.
Just as every one of your characters has a voice, they so too have a body language. Listen to it, harness it, and let the subtext flow when dialogue needn’t.
What are your favourite examples of body language used correctly? Let’s talk about it!