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2.3 Exploring subtexts in other texts - Advanced

Although often we see dialogue as revealing the intention of characters, frequently in texts, a character’s dialogue may be no more than a mask, a means through which they skirt across the surface of relationships. In responding to dialogue it is important to focus on not just what the characters say but how their utterances are received and reinterpreted. Take for example, the opening scene to Alex Buzo’s play Norm and Ahmed:

Lights up on NORM, who is leaning against the fence. He wears an open-necked white shirt and grey trousers. A clock strikes twelve. NORM moves around restlessly looking up and down the street. He takes out a cigarette packet, looks in it, then screws it up and flings it on the ground angrily. He brings out a fresh packet, rips off the cellophane with his teeth and takes out a cigarette, which he lights with a lighter He moves around a bit more and then leans on the fence again. He waits. Then he starts moving around some more, and suddenly straightens up, looking to his left. He puts his cigarette out and takes another from the packet, putting it in his mouth unlit. He leans casually against the fence. The sound of footsteps is heard and AHMED appears, wearing a Nehru-style suit and carrying a briefcase. He walks past NORM.

NORM: Excuse me, mate.

AHMED stops and looks at Norm. Pause.

Got a light?

AHMED: Yes, certainly.

He offers a box of matches.

NORM: Thanks.

He keeps the matches after he has lit up.

I was dying for a smoke. Lucky you turned up. Nothing open at this hour.

AHMED: No, it's nearly midnight.

Pause. AHMED has been waiting for NORM to return his matches, but now he starts to edge away warily.

NORM: Wait a minute, mate.



NORM: You forgot your matches.

He holds them out.

AHMED: [taking them warily] Thank you. He edges away.

NORM: What's the matter, mate? Do you think going to hold you up and rob you or something?

AHMED: [hastily] Oh no, not at all.

NORM: This isn't India, mate. You're in Sydney. No Bombay stranglers around here. You're quite safe.

Discuss with a partner how Buzo orients the audience to the character of Norm. Note down and comment upon

  • examples of Norm’s dialogue that seem to be masking other intentions. Here you might consider the volume and bluntness of his speech.
  • examples of Ahmed’s interpretation of Norm’s words and behaviour
  • examples of how Norm interprets, perhaps, distorts the intentions behind Ahmed’s words and reactions
  • what Ahmed’s dialogue may be ‘masking’
  • how Buzo uses subtext to establish a particular set of power relations in this opening.
  • What this opening suggests might be the dominant themes in this play?

Dialogue plays an important role in establishing the social context of characters. It immerses the audience in the worlds of the characters. Gwen Harwood’s poem In the Park is an example that highlights this. Read the poem and establish how the dialogue establishes the social context of the woman. You might comment on:

  • what the woman says to her former lover: “Time holds great surprises”; “It’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive.”
  • the woman’s projections of what the former lover is thinking: “But for the grace of God”
  • what she wants to achieve through the conversation
  • the social context and order that the poem interrogates
  • the role of subtext in the dialogue in this poem and the possible reasons for this.

Experimenting with context, character and subtext

The judgements we form about characters in texts are framed by narrative elements such as point of view, focalisation, subtext and dialogue.

  • Read this opening to Peter Cowan’ short story The Tractor and discuss with a partner your initial views of the characters and the role of subtext in forming these views. You might discuss
  • the contrast between the homestead and the landscape
  • the woman’s view that the house was incongruous in its rural setting and the husband’s incredulity at her viewpoint
  • the distance between the woman and her husband suggested through the characterisation of the woman as observer and the dissonance in their viewpoints about the house
  • the writer’s decision to focalise the story in this way

The Tractor

She watched him coming back from the gate, walking towards the slightly ornate suburban-style house she felt to be so incongruous set down on the bare rise, behind it the sheds and yards and the thin belt of shade trees. Yet he and his family were so proud of it, grateful for its convenience and modernity and had so clearly not understood her first quizzical remarks that she had never repeated them.

Peter Cowan

Using your judgements from the previous answers, write and deliver a piece of dialogue between the husband and the wife that draws on the context of this story and the subtext that you have gleaned from your reading and reflection. Possible scenarios could include:

  • the contrast between rural and suburban living
  • dialogue that foregrounds the husband’s viewpoint
  • events that have preceded the moment in the story opening
  • conversations between the husband and wife in the broader family context
  • a marriage that is fraying.

To guide you in your writing, consider

  • what might be the goal of the speaker
  • what she or he is trying to hide from the other participant.

Bringing it all together

Advertisers collaborate in teams to discuss and develop strategies that take into consideration audience and context. You have been exploring the importance of accounting for context in communicating ideas to particular audiences. Read the context for the development of the Saving Lives on Country Roads Campaign by the Centre for Road Safety and examine how the advertisements use the situations, dialogue and visuals to address the requirements of the campaign.

You should consider:

  • the crash data
  • challenges on country roads
  • the rationale for the campaign
  • the audience and
  • key messages.

Choose one of the other texts in this section or another text you are studying in class to identify an issue which will benefit from a campaign to address its negative effects on society.

In small groups

  • research the issue
  • develop an idea for a campaign to try to address the issue
  • write a fact sheet for your campaign in which you explain
    • the background for the issue
    • why the issue should be addressed
    • a rationale for the campaign (in which you explain the thinking behind your campaign decisions)
    • your intended audience and your
    • key messages.
  • write a transcript of a scenario for 10 to 30 second advertisement to promote your message.

Individually, write a 150-word reflection about this activity. Use the following framework as a guideline and record any difficulties or pleasures each aspect:

  • The ways your group worked together through discussion
  • The ways your group worked together to complete the project
  • How to translate data or information into a scenario
  • How you took account of context
  • What you learned about your own writing.

Last update: 24th January 2019