Screenwriters are very different from most writers. While your typical novelist is urged to challenge what they know and explore uncharted territory, your average screenwriter is told to hew to the straight and narrow. Baby prose writers thrive on subtext. They get a whiff of its power early on. Writing teachers and girlfriends and open mic audiences only fuel that drive into the ineffable resonance that distinguishes a real character from words on a page.
must survive a much more difficult path if they are to succeed. This path is a minefield of "five easy ways" to build a compelling character, or the ten commandments of plot, or the thirty two dozen things you must never do lest ye be cast into the slush pile for ever more. We're taught to keep our heads down and plow all our creativity into a very narrow range. It's a lot like Catholic school. If your desire to write and learn survives, you're probably better for it.
Subtext doesn't come naturally to screenwriters. My personal suspicion is that it simply falls between the cracks. We learn how to construct a non-heretical plot. We learn that characters need dialogue that moves much faster than real-life dialogue. We learn to construct the elements of character and play them through to the end.
But we tend to get a little lost with something like subtext, which is a function of not just dialogue, but also plot. And not just plot, but character also. Dialogue doesn't show up on the page like a good set up. It doesn't jump out at you like a carefully constructed misbehavior, patiently placed and coaxed from action line to action line. Subtext requires being there.
There where? There, in the story -- and off the page in front of you. It's the opposite of so much right thinking about screenwriting.
I've had more than one student come up to me half way through a semester and ask, fidgeting, what subtext really is. They want a neat little definition to put in their writer's toolbox. Truth is that subtext is like love. You know when it's there.
If you're one of those who thinks he knows, or thinks she should, do yourself a favor and watch Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. There's great subtext throughout, but it truly shines in the scene where Sisters Aloysius and James and discussing the Christmas pageant with Father Flynn.
Try transcribing this dialogue in your head. Can you find the subtext? You certainly know it's there. But it's not on the page.
It's in the audience's mind. They know the plot. They have an expectation. The discussion of the Christmas pageant (and the suspicious carol "Frosty the Snowman") conflicts with the expectation of that meeting. It conflicts with how we expect everyone to talk. And there you have subtext.
Subtext is relying on the strength of your story. It's hard to do that. We're very much like novelists and playwrights and every other kind of writer in one important respect: we're neurotic.
But writing has a strange way of rewarding faith. In a way, the more you rely on your story, the more it reveals itself. The more you rely on an audience, the bigger the bet they'll place on you (and the afternoon they're willing to risk with your work). Give yourself the chance to find that subtext. You'll fidget, looking for the simpler, page-centric answer. But you'll let that go eventuallly.