I’m cheating a little bit with this headline, but bear with me.
I don’t really think subtext in screenwriting is a myth — meaning, I do think it exists. But the “myth” of subtext is that it’s grown into this thing that’s completely misunderstood and feared for all the wrong reasons.
Somewhere along the way, subtext came to mean that characters can never say what they’re thinking.
You wouldn’t believe it by reading screenwriting books/blog/forums, but most of the time, characters in great TV shows and movies say exactly what they’re thinking. That’s probably not a popular opinion for me to have, but I swear to God it’s true. Most of the time, characters just say what makes sense, and the writer picks their spots where they want to deviate from that.
Yes, it’s great when a writer is able to get a point across without making you feel beaten over the head with it. It’s great when a writer is able to write dialogue that’s subtle and nuanced, yet still expressive. That’s a skill that takes years to master.
The problem is that amateur writers tend to lean too far toward subtle. Too far toward nuance. It’s a mistake I’ve made myself a ton of times. Because we’re terrified of getting accused of being “on the nose”. We’re afraid we’ll be accused of not having subtext.
But what happens is you get scenes where characters talk about stuff that makes no sense to the reader. They use vague language. They subtly refer to events in their backstory that we have no picture of. And, sure, it checks a box on an imaginary scorecard — “Is dialogue on the nose?” Nope!
But the bad news is that the reader is scrambling to play catch up and not emotionally investing in what’s on the page.
In my opinion, clarity is one of the most important elements of a story.
If you’re not being clear, if we have no idea what’s going on, then you have no chance of hooking the reader. So start there, and then slowly pull it back if it’s too much. Try not to shroud every line of dialogue in completely mystery. It won’t work.
As for what subtext really means? I think it’s simple. Don’t think so much about the words. Two characters complaining about the meal they’re eating when they’re really complaining about their relationship isn’t great subtext. That’s just a gimmick.
Great subtext comes when you’ve got something interesting going on below the text. Maybe one character is keeping a secret from another. Maybe there’s an element of danger the characters aren’t aware of. Maybe there’s something hilarious going on in the background that the characters are oblivious too.
Great subtext comes from scene construction, not necessarily the way you write dialogue.
I try to remember that as I’m working. It lets you obsess over the story rather than the specific words you’re using to tell it.