The Great Linda Seger Has Done It Again!

In this, her ninth book on screenwriting, the industry’s matriarch — who essentially created the job of script consultant three decades ago — Dr. Seger has gone on to clarify one of the most elusive elements of screenwriting in her latest book: Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath.

“Subtext is the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions,” she explains. “The text is the tip of the iceberg but the subtext is everything underneath that bubbles up and informs the text.”

Dr. Seger starts with reality to anchor our understanding of subtext. “When you’re confused, you’re probably experiencing subtext — something is going on beneath the surface.”

“In real life, subtext wastes our time and muddies our relationships because we’re forced to spend so much time figuring out what’s really going on. We try to fathom what’s up and keep thinking: ‘Something’s wrong here but I don’t know what it is!’”

Dr. Seger advises writers not to confuse the Reader by leaving the subtext vague.  Being very judicious in their selection of words, scenes and characters, writers can intentionally avoid any erroneous detours or potential misinterpretations caused by arbitrary scenes or dialogue.

While perhaps frustrating or obfuscating in real life, on a script’s page, effective subtext can bring an entire cast and crew into alignment and empower each of them to add layers of authenticity to the execution of their respective roles. A script that leaps powerfully off the page has that much better a chance of making it successfully onto a screen.

Writing Subtext encourages writers to use all the tools in their arsenal: everything from visual image systems, the choice of time and weather, to swerves or pauses in dialogue, to gestures, behaviors, and actions. Each and every arrow in the creative quiver can be infused with subtext to eradicate a screenplay of any over-used, superficial, cliché or dreaded “on the nose” elements. The pros and cons of writing character bios and backstories are discussed — why some writers swear by them and others dismiss them as irrelevant — and the dangers of how too much subtext can seep into expositional text.

At the end of every chapter are exercises for you to develop your own projects as well as revisit great examples from our rich film history. She suggests studying everything from Freud to dream interpretation to B-movies to look for new and unique ways of evoking emotion and feeling through symbols and images.

No screenwriter’s bookshelf is complete without at least one book by Dr. Linda Seger. That’s a given. I’d personally argue, it’s not complete without all of them. I always weigh the price of the book and the few hours it’ll take me to read it against the knowledge and expertise that the author brings to my reading table. Thirty years of expertise, teaching in 30 countries on six continents, a dozen books published and consulting on a couple thousand screenplays which have resulted in 40 produced  films and 35 television episodes … yeah, I’d say that’s worth 17 bucks and a couple hours of my time to read the latest is she’s got to say.

3 thoughts on “The Great Linda Seger Has Done It Again!

  1. Heather HaleHeather Hale

    Shane –


    Hey Ludwig –

    I appreciate that complaint/concern. I’ve heard it many times – especially in regard to the three you mention – but the truth is, they’re all really great teachers and authors.

    Have you ever been to any of their classes or read any of their books?

    They do know their stuff. And have earned their chops by watching many, many movies, reading tons of screenplays (not online transcripts), interviewing filmmakers, etc.

    There are people in every industry who’re really successful at their craft or trade but can’t teach or break down how they do what they do (or don’t have the time or the interest to do). And of course, every business has plenty of people on the sidelines who don’t know what they’re talking about and consult – but the three you mention are widely respected, very well informed and great at articulating concepts.

    Even though I work in the trenches myself (as a writer, director, producer), I teach and consult, too. And I read virtually all the books out there, hit most of the events, read tons of scripts, see most movies – and I can tell you that all three of them know their shit – and have the ability to break it down for those of us not spending hundreds if not thousands of hours studying the lexicon of screenwriting.

    I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt. They’re all really nice people to boot 😉 and whatever the cost of the books (that might be of interest to you) it represents hours of plowing through that material to distill it. I’m just doin’ reviews – most of the time of books I think are worth Script Magazine Readers’ while (I actually read a ton of books that don’t warrant reviews 🙂

    Anyway – wish you – and your writing – well.


  2. ludwig

    oh no, not again. screenplay-gurus don’t sell a screenplay but want to teach me how to write a screenplay. ha ha ha… the same with robert mckee, syd field and and and…

    watch movies, read on-line screenplays, that is the best school for becoming a great screenplay-writer.

  3. Shane

    Subtext is one of those elements in writing where there is a bit of finesse involved, like writing great dialogue, or crafting intricate plots. You can learn about how these elements work, and what to look for, but doing them well sometimes falls in the realm of inspiration and talent.