The Relationship Between Subtext and Actions

The Relationship Between Subtext and Actions

Anyone who has ever worked with me on a one to one basis for Drama School Audition Coaching knows how obsessed I am about subtext in performances. I often get asked to clarify my thoughts on it.

What is Subtext?

Subtext is the message or communication ‘beneath’ the words the author has written or the actor has spoken. It’s implicit, not explicit. This is pretty much what happens in real life - people rarely say what they truly mean.

The easiest to think about it is like this - Subtext is WHAT you REALLY MEAN to say.

How do I Choose Good Subtext?

There are three golden rules to choosing great subtext:

  1. It should be in line with your goal / objective / task for the scene

  2. It should be expressed as a strong feeling or opinion, which is the absolute essence of what you really mean

  3. It shouldn’t be formed as a question (unless the line itself is a question in which case it could be)

Weak subtext occurs when you just re-write the line, and don’t get to the essence of what you mean.

Let’s look at Joey’s iconic line in Friends:

“Hey, How You Doin’ ?”

So weak subtext would be:

How Are You?
How’s it Going?
I hope you’re well!
Do you come here often?

(What would you choose?)

Some possible good examples would be:

WOW you’re HOT!
We should make love!
I could kiss you right now!

If you’re struggling to come up with good subtext, keep asking yourself “what do I really mean by that” until you get to the purest essence of meaning that you can find. Here’s an example of how you might evolve:

Rosalind: And why, I pray you?

Tell Me Why you said that?
What on Earth are you saying?
Who would say such a thing?


Why Subtext is different to Actions (or Tactics as we call them at ACS)

If Subtext is WHAT you really mean, your Action is HOW you want to express it. 

Will the subtext influence the range of tactics? Oh for sure, but you can be sure of your what your message is and yet allow the freedom of how to express it come to you in the moment.

Here’s an extreme example of how subtext can affect a scene:

Base Reality - In this scene my character is an acting coach who is in the middle of a very important one to one coaching session with a student who is getting help to audition for a Netflix movie, and his partner rings his mobile in the middle of it:

Let’s say my objective or task is to LAY DOWN THE LAW

Author’s Line

My Choice of Subtext as an Actor

Possible Tactics or Action Choices I could use

“Hello Darling is everything ok?”

“I’m really pissed off that you’ve interrupted me”

Prod, Grip, Press

“I’m just in the middle of a coaching session”

“It’s completely disrespectful to break my rules”

Shake, Warn, Grip

“I’ll talk to you when I get home”

“I’m going to make you regret this ”

Jab, Slash, Punch, Whip


However, let’s say my objective is to GIVE ME THE GREEN LIGHT


Author’s Line

My Choice of Subtext as an Actor

Possible Tactics or Action Choices I could use

“Hello Darling is everything ok?”

“Oh thank god you’ve rang!”

Praise, Boost, Cheer

“I’m just in the middle of a coaching session”

“I am so very bored right now!”

Embrace, Clasp, Squeeze, Crave, Beseech

“I’ll talk to you when I get home”

“I can’t wait to get my hands on you ”

Kiss, Adore, Devour


Can you choose an Action or Tactic before or without Subtext?

Of course you could, but that would be based on an approximation of what you really mean by the line. If you take the time to specifically decide what you really mean, how the tactic or action comes out is going to be much stronger, more authentic and ultimately more effective.

Ultimately I think the subtext is the chicken and the action or tactic is the egg. Some people like to think the egg came first, and then think about the chicken. But like everything with acting, it’s what works for you that counts.


Nick J Field
Studio Producer and Drama School Audition Coach


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