We live in an age when anything can and usually does end up on screen. Characters have no problem discussing the most intimate topics or being placed in compromising situations, but this wasn’t always the case in Hollywood. In the mid 1930s, the Hays Code was introduced and film producers faced strict rules about what could and could not be said or portrayed on film. Working under these restrictions, filmmakers and screenwriters became very creative when dealing with adult subjects. It is this creativity that writers can learn from to bring depth and subtext to their own writing.
A great example of using subtext is the classic Tyrone Powers, Gene Tierney film The Razor’s Edge. In one scene, the heroine wants to get pregnant by her fiancé so he won’t leave her. In 1946 when the film was made, the heroine couldn’t simply come out and admit her scheme. She and the hero had to dance around the subject yet, listening to the dialogue, it is obvious what is being discussed in the scene. It’s an excellent example of how characters can say everything while saying nothing.
Classic Hollywood films can also provide a great lesson in how to pepper in backstory through dialogue. His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant is a great example of how to use witty dialogue for both characterization and backstory. In the film, Russell and Grant play a divorced couple who work in the newspaper business. Most of the film takes place in the office of Grant’s newspaper, but there is no voice over telling us what happened to make Grant and Russell get a divorce. Instead, their past relationship is revealed in their verbal exchanges with the characters providing just enough information so the viewer knows what happened, but not so much that the action of the story stops for an info dump. The Philadelphia Story is another great film, staring Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn where dialogue is successfully used to reveal backstory. The best example is with the character Liz, who is Stewart’s camerawoman, and the way she reveals her previous marriage. There are only about 3 lines where the ex-husband is mentioned but each paints a vivid picture of who he was and why the marriage didn’t last.
His Girl Friday is also a great film to watch if you are looking to add zing to your dialogue. At Times, Grant and Russell speak so fast that they practically step over each other’s lines. However, the way each of them speaks reveals their character and gives the viewer a sense of the fast paced life of a 1940’s newsroom.
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