Taken in isolation, NO always means NO. But in a conversation, there is always a surrounding context for the use of the word “No.” In a routine conversation, we extrapolate or infer a ton of non-verbal information and automatically apply it to attempt to determine the “real” meaning.
For example, let’s say I offer you a sandwich. You say “No.” Now, in isolation you’re refusing the offer of a sandwich by saying “No.” However, based on the surrounding circumstances (or possibly body language) I would likely infer certain things – perhaps that you’re not hungry, or you are wanting to be polite because it’s the last sandwich and you know I haven’t eaten in a week, or whatever. All that additional information is processed in connection with the word “No” and we have to call it “subtext” because there’s nothing else to call it. It isn’t on the surface of what is said, but it exists. —Bill Wallo —Screenplay Subtext (Wallo World)
I’m dusting off a drama survey course I haven’t taught in several years, and thought I’d see what I can find online. I hope that this article, which demonstrates how much effort writers put into creating subtext, will help encourage my students to put the time into developing the ability to recognize subtext without the benefit of music cues and the expressions on actors’ faces.