‘Dating is subtext, marriage is text’ . . .

tomato with jalapeños for ears saying Advice without the bull
Creative Writing Fiction and Non Fiction


I’m still hooked on Dr. Linda Seger’s book: Writing Subtext. In it she quotes psychotherapist and script consultant Dr. Rachel Ballon as saying,

‘Dating is subtext, marriage is text.’

When you think of the first date, of guessing what he/she really thinks, about being on your best behaviour, revelling in how, ‘we’ve got so many things in common’ even though you have no idea what they’re referring to . . .and how later on in the relationship his or her habits and idiosyncrasies make you smile, until, finally, by the time you both make life long commitments, you don’t waste time on inference and run the risk of misinterpretation. You have grown into the text part of your relationship. By now, the habits that you or your partner could not live with, probably, have been weeded out.

Rachel Ballon also says that children start off with text. Again, we know what she means. Perhaps we’ve all endured one of those heart-stopping moments such as, ‘Daddy, why does that man smell of wee?’ Or, within earshot, ‘My mummy says there’s something funny about you.’

So we start off with text and then as we become more sophisticated and learn to understand social behaviour, accepted norms and etiquette’s do’s and don’ts, we graduate into the world that Linda Seger calls Real-Life Subtext.


By the time we are ready to leave primary school, at 11 or 12 years of age, we already know how to say something that will achieve our real aim. We have learned, for example, ‘ask don’t get.’ And have also, rather confusingly, become cognisant with the notion of ‘don’t ask, don’t want.’ Sometimes people can be so contrary! So what are we to do? A child’s techniques nearly always employ body language showing what they really want and lip service showing what they’re supposed to say, but hope they don’t miss out as a result. Or, the example given by Dr. Linda Seger is of a child who meets ‘Aunt Jeannie’ and screams, ‘I don’t want to kiss her. She’s ugly.’

The parents are mortified and teach the child coping strategies. These save face for one and all and avoid a repetition of this kind of social catastrophe the next time the child is supposed to kiss Aunt Jeannie. When this coached for occasion does arrive, the child apologises to Aunt Jeannie, explaining how having a cold means it would be inappropriate to kiss the aunt.


Take for example, when your child wants to go to the most important music festival ever. You don’t know that, you’re just enjoying how helpful around the home and solicitous your offspring is being. Until, finally, the question is posed and all becomes clear.


Imagine, for example, you have no idea why, but you’ve never been able to dive head first into a swimming pool or the sea. It’s something you have always wished you could do. You’re on a boat with your cousin who is happily diving off the transom. Suddenly, a memory returns after years of lying dormant. You remember what happened. Your cousin and you were playing Batman and Robin and he/she pushed you over the banisters to watch you fly. You landed on your head, no bones broken as you were so young the bones were still as bendy as rubber.

Really, it soons become clear there is subtext for every occasion. Take any piece of writing, listen to any screen play or juicy dialogue and there, between the lines, will be the real hook.

It is possible to download many final scripts of screen plays from the internet. They are wonderful for explaining what the writer intended and showing how it was achieved.

‘Kill Your Darlings’ is abrim with subtext from the get go. This was recently made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. The original story is by Austin Bunn and screenplay by John Krokidas and Austin Bunn.


The story opens with murder most foul then cuts back to Allen’s family home before he starts at Columbia. Allen plays some music: a calming Brahms waltz for his mother in her bedroom as she suffers ‘a paranoid attack’. The next time he hears the EXACT SAME MUSIC is in his halls of residence. This is significant. He has just turned down a night out with his roommate and roommate’s brother, a babe magnet, dressed as he was in his uniform. No full blooded heterosexual would turn down such an offer, but Allen Ginsberg did. Juxtaposed with this, Allen hears Brahms, wanders down the corridor to find the source and it takes him to LUCIEN CARR’s room.


Sexual Subtext then abounds with a reference both to Allen’s comment in the lecture about Walt Whitman and an implied nod towards homosexuals, even, Allen suspects, an insinuation by Lucien that Allen is gay, when to be so is a criminal offence:

Lucien toasts Allen’s glass.


To Walt Whitman, you dirty bastard.

Allen, mortified, not sure how to take that reference as Lucien knocks his wine back in one gulp.

Sometimes, it is what it is – on every level.

Our workshops use writing prompts, examples from masters and group sourced story-telling to further explore subtext with character and plot. We offer feedback in a constructive and positive manner.

Tracy Thomson

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