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5 Great TV Scenes That Subtly Reveal Character & Motivation.

Updated: Apr 22

We all want to reveal character in unique and interesting ways, but it's easier said than done. The holy grail for writers are scenes that do that, further story and (the cherry on top) nod to theme.


Pull it off with a dash of subtext and you are well on the way to becoming accomplished at your craft.

  

What is subtext?

 

Subtext occurs whenever information is conveyed in an indirect way. In other words, a reader or audience must “read between the lines” to conclude the real meaning behind character dialogue or action.

 

Anything that is not referred to explicitly, but alluded to by other means (and is therefore understood by the audience to mean something different) is subtext.

 

Caution: We love it but, like all good things, we should use in moderation! If your characters constantly talk in riddles, that's going to get old very quickly. So, be selective. Sometimes we just serve it straight up, and that's okay too!


We’ve collected some examples–5 great character revealing scenes–to show you just how backstory and motivation can be built into the narrative successfully without being jarring for the audience.


5 great character revealing scenes


  1. Ted Lasso S01 E08: The Darts Scene



Ted Lasso. Gotta love this guy, right? In this scene, we learn some valuable backstory about Ted in a very seamless way. Additionally, it's done in a way that is completely in keeping with the essence of this character: he's helping his employer come out a winner in an awkward situation.


We come to understand a little more about why Ted conducts himself the way he does. The takeaway: nice guys don't have to finish last.

 

2. Mare of East Town E02: The Doctor Scene




Another scene where we're given some invaluable backstory. Although the scene is very "two heads talking," it's not at all boring or static–thanks in no small way to Kate Winslet's acting chops.


But at a deeper level (and this remains unsaid), the audience understands that for Mare, her grandson represents a second chance to get things right. No spoilers in case you haven't seen the show, but the scene explains why Mare is grappling with a particular issue, explains her actions further down the line, and heightens the stakes for the entire story. All from one scene.


3. Better Call Saul S04 E10: The Intern Scene



To fully understand this scene from BCS, it's a good idea to watch the previous one first (you can do that here).


It's a really beautifully crafted sequence and we quickly realise that Jimmy is talking about himself when he gives the intern some life advice. Simultaneously, Jimmy reveals the driving motivation for his eventual transformation into Saul Goodman.


In doing so, the writers have popped the hood on the engine of the entire series. This is a master class on delivering character mechanics cleverly disguised as story.


4. Grey's Anatomy: Derek & Miranda in the Elevator Scene



(Elevator scene starts from 1:42)

 

The elevator in Grey’s Anatomy needs no introduction. So many memorable scenes have been delivered inside this humble lift.


For me, this particular moment stands out for its very raw emotional punch. It's delivering a powerful message about these characters in the moment. Also interesting to note is how much more impactful the scene is by the inclusion of a second character.


5. How to Get Away With Murder S01 E04: The Wig Scene



Annalise Keating peels back the layers and shows her real self at home at the end of a difficult day. And it's not over yet.


She has to confront her husband, but rather than go straight for the jugular, we see Annalise first remove her amour. But it's not enough that she takes off her make up. She has to present in her most vulnerable form, so she takes off her wig and lays herself bare. How can we not respond?


Fun fact: The amazing Viola Davis came up with the idea of removing Annalise's wig. Great example of a subtle change that pushes the scene to a whole new level.


And here's a bonus scene revealing character from Breaking Bad:


Breaking Bad S02 E06: The You Cut Me Out Scene



What do we learn about Walter White?


What does it tell us about perhaps his real motivation in becoming Heisenberg?


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