21st Century Films Screenplays

Writing Dialogue with Subtext: La La Land (2016)

The subtext in dialogue will often be revealed by connecting the dots with other events in the film.

In the film La La Land (2016), there is a scene outside a theater: Mia (Emma Stone) has finished her one-woman play, and her boyfriend Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) has arrived late. Mia’s dialogue in the scene has subtext, and it’s confirmed by her and Sebastian’s actions.

When Sebastian meets Mia outside the theatre, she is angry. Her play failed to sell enough tickets to break even, and she doesn’t have enough money to pay the theater back, so she says to Sebastian: “It’s over.”

The obvious meaning of the line is her dream of becoming an actress is “over”, but it also has a second meaning: Her relationship with Sebastian is now “over” too. When she shoves him, it is symbolic of her pushing him out of her life. Sebastian is confused when Mia says, “It’s over” and asks her what that means. In response, she says, “All of this.” When she drives away, and leaves Sebastian on the street, “All of this” includes her acting dream and her relationship with him. With both lines, Mia’s physical actions confirm the subtext.

In interpreting subtext, we must not let our imagination run wild and make words mean whatever we want them to mean. The subtext in dialogue will often be revealed by connecting the dots with other plot details in the film. When Mia moves to Nevada, she doesn’t give Sebastian a forwarding address, which signals she no longer wants to see him again. In two later scenes, Sebastian plays piano at his sister’s wedding, but Mia is not there as a guest; and when he receives a phone call for her, he tells the caller, “Wrong number.” These plot details show us Mia is no longer part of Sebastian’s life, confirming that she broke up with him outside the theater.  

The theatre scene in La La Land show us an important technique for writing dialogue with subtext: Write a line with a second meaning that may not be immediately understood by the viewer. The subtext of Mia’s dialogue is confirmed by her physical actions in the scene and what happens in later scenes. When dialogue has subtext that isn’t immediately understood, it compels the viewer to keep watching the film, so they can learn what the second meaning is.

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