For an actor, the script would be a simple text, simple words on a piece of paper, without reason. Without a cause, a sense to use a specific term instead of another, the actor would lose what is more important to make the difference in his job: the emotions.
Therefore, the actor needs to dig deep into his character’s motivations and what brings character X to say that exact word in that particular scene. In this way, the actor will express his emotions enough, moving the audience as well.
This is even more true when speaking about a writer since we must consider thinking about subtext and context when writing any dialogue. Imagine this scene:
“Luke, do you love me?”
“Yes, I do love you.”
This is a flat scene, but if the context is appropriate, even a flat scene can be pretty valuable. Imagine if the story is about two young boys living in a country where homosexuality is still considered a crime; forced to get married by their respective families, they finally find a way to reveal that they love each other.
We didn’t know, we just suspected for the whole movie, and now they are telling each other and kissing for the first time. Without subtext (friendship, bad marriages, latent homosexuality) and context (conservative, retrograde country), the scene above will show 0 pathos.
Without nuances, if the characters were just robots declaring their lines mechanically, there would be no dramatic tension. That’s what Brandlyin Collins calls WYSIWYG, or What you see is what you get (the longest acronym ever, I suppose).
A conversation with subtext occurs when a character starts a conversation without revealing the real objectives and it works as follows:
- The subtext is natural. We use it in many situations, not just when we’re tense or don’t want to open up to others.
- The subtext isn’t something to use with strangers. We also use it every day with friends and family members.
- The subtext can sometimes be an entire conversation. Imagine you start speaking about war with a close friend of yours, who’s getting increasingly arrogant daily. Both of you know after a while that you’re talking about war, the conversation is about war. Still, the communication between the two of you, the message, is about something else, more personal.
It’s crucial to balance text and subtext to make a realistic dialogue, creating the proper context to push the reader to read between the lines and understand the subtext. For instance, at the very beginning, when there’s no context to help the reader. Clearly, WYSIWYG can be a good solution in this specific moment of our story when we need to be plain and straightforward.
When you need to use subtext in a conversation, it must be helpful for the sake of your character, so you should ask yourself:
- What is the purpose of my character in this conversation?
- The first character wanted to say something straightforwardly, but the second used subtext. Why?
- Do the characters involved in this conversation know why this subtext is present?
- Does this conversation present a conflict, or is it a changing moment?
If the scene is about an ongoing conflict, the best choice is to go for a subtext dialogue. In contrast, if we’re about to reveal a changing moment through our conversation, it’s better to avoid it and go straight to the point.
The subtext is a good choice when the reader knows the conflict well and the dialogue must come from the character’s motivation, not yours as a writer. We often start speaking through one of our characters, which is fine, but we always have to remember that we’re not it; our character is something else
Even if it comes from our fantasy, a character lives a different life inside the pages of a book and we need to take a big breath and let it live and die. If in doubt, go back to read your character description card, remember what is that it needs, remember its voice, and go on with it.
And next, let’s write some dialogues!