|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Sitcom Writing course. There is a table of links
to other teaching resources towards the bottom of this page.
At first sight, the idea of situation comedy being
rich in subtext may seem laughable: situation comedy is pure entertainment,
And yet subtext is present, at least subliminally,
in all creative writing, insofar as subtext is information invented
by the listener in order to fill gaps in both writing and production.
For example, when a character hints at an a relationship without
making the circumstances fully clear to the audience, the members
of the audience instinctively hypothesise, each in his/her own
terms, about the nature of that relationship: the more vague the
hint, the greater the subtext. Subtext need not be deeply intellectual,
but it is inevitable.
When writing situation comedy, the characters and
their situation may be made more interesting and credible by creating
subtextual links to events that have a bearing upon the action,
but that never actually impinge on it.
Note that this does not mean direct links, which
would conflict with the "show
don't tell" principle (click on the link to see the relevant
topic sheet in the Exciting Writing for Theatre course). For example,
if a character needs to say "I've never forgiven you for
that time you...", the "show don't tell" principle
dictates that the past event must actually be acted out for the
Subtextual links are more subtle, even uncertain.
The writer might hint repeatedly at the fact that Character A
has never forgiven Character B for something without ever mentioning
the "something", and perhaps without ever explicitly
stating the lack of forgiveness. This make the characters more
interesting for the audience. The comedy will probably arise from
the conflict between the unforgiving and the unforgiven, and the
way in which it shapes their actions, so that the characters will
earn their places in the programme on comic merit alone. But the
insoluble mystery of their relationship will be a further hook
that draws audiences back time and again to laugh at their antics
and to puzzle, perhaps subconsciously, over the subtextual questions.
Writers can never hope to be in complete control
of subtext which is, after all, created exclusively in the minds
of the audience and informed by each individual's unique mindset
and portfolio of memories. However there is much that the writer
can do to ensure richness of subtext, and the characters and their
situation are likely to be greatly enhanced through this work.
Specifically, the writer can create, or at least
visualise, significant, perhaps life-changing past events,that
have shaped the situation and/or the relationships that help to
Whether or not such events are ever written out
in full, they can never be included within the comedy.
- Included events cease to be subtextual anyway, so their inclusion
rather defeats the object.
- But another reason for their exclusion is that their life-changing
effects would jeopardise the stability that is the essence of
good situation comedy: that we must be able to visit the episodes
of the sitcom in any order without any sense of disorientation.
Life-changing events are unacceptable because the change would
render past episodes unusable in view of the changed circumstances.
Perhaps the best route to controlled subtext is raising and answering
loaded questions about the characters. The reason for "loading"
the questions is that the answers must provide grist for the comedy:
conflicts, faults, embarrassment, insecurity, etc. Simple questions
such as "Where did A first meet B?" may provide mildly
interesting narrative subtext, but the most powerful subtext will
almost certainly come from questions that deliberately seek to
expose raw wounds.
- If one wishes to create a general feeling of unease that constantly
grips the characters, one might ask: What unspeakable event
happened in this very room ten years ago that everyone remembers
vividly but no one dares to mention?
- If the comedy is inspired by an intriguing relationship between
two characters (such as an insecure boss and an incompetent,
mutinous secretary), there may be fascinating subtext to be
mined by probing the dark depths of their past relationship.