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A quick clinic in subtext

Subtext can be thought of as the underlying theme in a piece of writing, or a message which is not stated directly but can be inferred. It can be difficult to execute elegantly, and when it is, it’s a thing of beauty.

Tons of subtext can be found in KRAMER VS. KRAMER, the excellent screenplay by Robert Benton. For those not familiar, this 1979 divorce drama stars Dustin Hoffman (Ted) and Meryl Streep (Joanna), and chronicles the custody battle over their six-year-old son.

In the opening minutes, the workaholic Ted is at the office, unaware that Joanna is at home preparing to walk out on him and the boy after seven years of marriage. From Page 4:

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kramer vs kramer dustin hoffman meryl streep

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↑ That’s the juice right there. Show don’t tell.

Notice how much story is revealed in these two lines of description. We don’t even need to see the extramarital boyfriend (and we never do), yet we get still that picture.

But the real gem is the remaining perfume, and how she regards it. I’d estimate it takes a married woman about five or six years to go through a small (READ: expensive, special, not used every day) bottle of perfume, no? 😉


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