Repetition, Subtext and Peeling the Onion Skin

Mortensen as Nikolai Luzhin
Image via Wikipedia

In the real world speaking with others we often leave things unsaid, often because we can’t say it, won’t say it, don’t know how to say it, or don’t think it’s necessary to say it.  The part that is left unsaid in script dialogue is called “subtext.”  You can write a dialogue that is completely on point in which the characters say exactly what they are thinking.  But, this will diminish the power of your dialogue. In a script, subtext to dialogue is a way to keep dialogue crisp.  When dialogue is crisp it is memorable.

An example of the power of repetition is the phrase “I’m a driver” in Eastern Promises (Steve Knight). The story is about the Russian mob in London.  A midwife at the hospital, Anna, is present at the birth of a baby.  The mother dies in childbirth.  She wants to find the next of kin for the child.  She finds a diary in the mother’s purse.   She finds a business card in the diary and goes to the establishment which is a Russian restaurant.  When she is ready to leave her motorcycle won’t start and the family driver, Nikolai, offers her a ride home. She asks him a question to see if there is a relationship between the Russian family and the dead girl.  He responds.


You think Semyon’s son knew her?


Like I said, I’m a driver. I go

left, I go right, I go straight

ahead. That’s it.

Anna nods, her curiosity and suspicions aroused. Nikolai

glances at her.




Just here is great.

In this first instance the audience has evidence that this is basically true. With subtext a  whole different layer of meaning lies under the surface.  Is Nikolai just stating a fact or is there more?  Repetition is very powerful in the brief time of a screenplay.  In fact, the first time I watched the film I thought this phrase was repeated three times.  On a second viewing I realized that the phrase is repeated only twice.  The second time the audience knows more about Nikolai’s role within the family and Anna has gained knowledge of a dark secret about the mother of the child.  Now she really wants an answer.  When we hear the phrase again the dialogue is not really about what the dialogue appears to be about.  In other words, subtext.


You read the diary?

Nikolai looks all around. Anna studies him, unsure.


So how can you keep doing what

you’re doing?


I told you. I’m just a driver.

Anna sees some softness in his expression. Their eyes



You look the other way.

This second time, Nikolai knows about the family’s involvement with the girl.  We know that Nikolai has aspirations to build a place for himself within the family.  Anna knows the family is responsible for the girl’s pregnancy.   The phrase repetition build depth in the story context. Anna accuses Nikolai of not taking responsibility to interfere.

What the viewer does not know at this point in the story is that there is another layer to Nikolai which has not yet been revealed in the story progress.

In preparing your screenplay take note of places where you can repeat a phrase and give it a new meaning as layers of character development build.

Image fair use for critical commentary and discussion of the film and its contents.

2 thoughts on “Repetition, Subtext and Peeling the Onion Skin

  1. Great article on the subtext and repetition. I like to think that I have been conscious and useful with them, in my project. Work is back to nil again, so that’s a bummer but, there is much location scouting/story boarding to be done along with the budgeting/script breakdown etc. I have contacted some production people in town who have expressed interest in being a part of the production. I know it will be money well spent to get your coverage/advice, so I still plan to utilize your services in the ‘near’ future.

    Brian LaVallie


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