A person cannot speak unless he or she has had a thought. A person does not have a thought unless he or she has a need. That is never more true than in all dramatic writing. Characters in a script speak because they want something.
Another way to think of it: the average person speaks at 150 wpm (words per minute) while the average brain thinks at 3,000 wpm! In other words, our brains are assessing, calculating and making decisions much faster than we can utter the words to communicate those thoughts.
As the writer who creates these characters, when you have them speak you need to know not only what they want but what they think they want, what they think will happen if they ask for it, what they think will happen if they don’t, what they think they can achieve by asking and what they won’t – all of which is happening 20 times faster than what’s said aloud.
This is the hardest challenge of writing good dialogue.
Rarely do people know exactly what they want and rarely do they say it. When they do, it is often under duress and after having been pushed to profound emotional extreme.
The exception to this rule would be villains. Often times, what makes villains so sexy is that they know who they are and embrace themselves in ways no normal person can. As a result, they often declare exactly what they want, and the audience relishes in the joy of that implausibility.
The rest of the characters, however, don’t work this way. Like us, they approach what they say through their specific filters. They attack the problem indirectly because they are complex beings who have yet to resolve their issues. Because if they did, we’d be at the end of the story.
How and Why
What makes subtext work is not what is said but how it is said and why it is said.
Subtext influences word choice. What kind of character is speaking? Are they honest or dishonest, with themselves and/or with others? Are they direct or convoluted? Are they funny, practical or dull?” Are they at ease or stressed out? Is the situation romantic, desperate, dire, depressing, joyful or insane?
Subtext is influenced by the context. The situation in which the dialogue is said has as much effect on the intention as who says it and how. For example, take the word “Hello.” When the phone rings, we answer, “Hello.” That is a question: “Who is this? Who’s calling? Who’s on the other end of this line?” But at the end of a romantic evening, when your significant other steps into the room in his or her sexiest outfit and says “Hello,” it means something altogether different. And when you wake up in the middle of the night to a psychopathic killer standing over your bed with a knife in his hand and he says “Hello…,” it means yet just the opposite of the former. One word, three different subtexts – and there are as many different meanings as you can create scenarios.
The Human Experience
Every moment of every scene one or more people trying to get something from someone else. That means that on some level everyone in a scene is struggling with their inner demons.
When a character faces conflict from various aspects of his or her life, in order to overcome the obstacles he or she faces, at some point, they will have to make themselves vulnerable. They will have to admit to things they would prefer to keep to private. They will have to express needs and desires that might put them in danger of being manipulated. No one likes to do that, and no one is good at it.
These common emotions are the subtext that is explored in a given scene. Every line that a character utters is motivated by not just the needs that he or she has but by the emotions that accompany their feelings about having those needs. Finding this human experience is what makes dialogue meaningful and allows your audience to connect to your characters.
If you’re struggling with grasping the concept of how to write subtext, here’s a simple exercise:
Come up with a scenario in which one character wants something from the other. Make a list of all the words that can describe what the one wants. Now, write a scene between the two characters where the one tries to get what s/he wants from the other — without using any of the words on your list. Force yourself to find other ways for your characters to say what they want. Think of all the other ways that a character can express his or her feelings and desires without saying what they really want.
How do you find the subtext in your characters? How do you identify what the emotions are behind your characters’ words?