Ogres, onions and layers – Part 1

Shrek is our favourite celebrity ogre, right?  And he has a message relevant to your writing. Remember when Shrek and Donkey set out on the quest to rescue Princess Fiona from the dragon’s castle? They trudge through a field of sunflowers, bickering as usual.

Shrek states, “Ogres are like onions.”
Donkey doesn’t know what to make of that. “You mean they stink?”
Shrek is offended. “No,” he retorts, “they have layers.”

In addition to what we can take from the truly brilliant screenwriting, the point about layers interests us here.

Saying it without saying it

Along with ogres and onions, your writing should have them. Layers, as in “sub text”. Mastering this skill is essential for screenwriters and underpins the principle of “show, don’t tell”.

In film, it’s the messages we receive through action, expression and body language. When it’s done well, we’re not aware of the layers of sub text carefully laid by the writer. I would guess this is because humans are wired to communicate more through non-verbal signals than speech. As a writer you should exploit this factor to the max.

Create your layers.

Let’s take Disney Pixar‘s Toy Story as an example.

Reading character through appearance and gesture

Woody, the cowboy doll, is good-looking and smart. We can tell from his behavior that he cares about his appearance. He’s quite vain. Buzz Lightyear the spaceman, on the other hand, is more focused on action than what he looks like. When Buzz threatens Woody’s status as “coolest toy in the box”, it comes as a huge shock to Woody and triggers his jealousy.

Full of foreboding

In all the Toy Story films, the entire cast of Andy’s toy box is concerned for the future, but nobody has to state it directly. We learn Andy’s family is moving house. Andy goes to summer camp, and Jessie Cowgirl’s beloved Emily “grew up” with devastating consequences for Jessie. Adulthood means abandonment.

The very thought of being thrown out is terrifying. There’s a heart-breaking scene sequence in which Andy’s mother selects toys for their garage sale. The toys’  fear is plain to see. Not a word is spoken. It’s all done through visual storytelling. Poignant and powerful.

Ogres, onions and sub text

And while it’s an indispensible component of screenwriting, writing with subtext can transform your long form fiction too. Here I’ve only given two examples and we’ll explore more tools and techniques for writing with sub text in Part Two.


Shrek  Dreamworks. Writers: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger SH Schulman, Cody Cameron, Chris Miller, Conrad Vernon. (Book William Steig).

Toy Story Disney Pixar. Writers: John Lasseter, Joss Whedon, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow.