Text and Subtext

Text is the sensory surface of a work of art—what people see, say and hear. Subtext is the life hidden beneath the surface. Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting


A: So I decided, well, maybe something had happened; that [Betty] had been called out of town and couldn’t find me. About a quarter of 8:00, why, or 10 till 8:00, I decided to call back to their house again. And I called back and rang the phone eight or 10 times and Mr. Frye answered the phone. He said, “Duane Frye.” And he—should I tell them what he said?

Q: Yes, go ahead.

A: Well, he said—I asked him if Betty was there and he said, no, that they had lost Betty over the weekend. And it was sort of a funny statement. I said, “What did you say?” And he said, “We lost Betty over the weekend.” And I asked him what happened. And he said, “We think she ran head on into burglars.”

1973 Grand Jury Testimony of Virginia Moldenhauer


Betty and Virginia were secretaries at Martin Marietta. In February 1973, four months before the murder, they started carpooling to work. The second week of June was Betty’s turn to drive. On Monday she didn’t show up. Virginia tried calling her house. When Betty’s car wasn’t in the company lot, she grew even more concerned. She called again and was told Betty had run into burglars.

Around 9:00 a.m. the day Betty was killed, Virginia had gone to the Frye house to return a thermos Betty had left in her car. Duane came to the door in dark trousers and a dark print shirt, and maybe a necktie. A week later he called Virginia at work. What did you tell the cops about my clothes? he demanded. Was my shirt plaid or plain? Why did you tell them I was wearing a tie? And wasn’t it 8:00 a.m. when you came over? He warned her not to tell anyone he called. Virginia promptly notified security.

Days after the murder, Duane also went to the home of Bret Wacker, the thirteen-year-old boy who’d placed him at the scene. Are the cops questioning neighbors? he asked. Bret’s mother felt threatened. Duane’s contacts with her and Virginia sped up his arrest. But I keep coming back to how he described his wife’s death to her distraught friend.

Betty didn’t get lost over the weekend, she was killed. She didn’t run head-on into anything.

She was struck brutally from behind—maybe ambushed. Virginia thought it was sort of a funny statement. Maybe she read the subtext.

How much weight do you give words?


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