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When my best friend and I talk about our plans for the day, we aren't engaged in serious information exchange. We're more like two birds chirping to each other. Underneath our insignificant words, the real message is: "I care about you. I'm interested in your life." The words are the text, but the meaning, carried by what we're NOT saying, is the subtext. This is how we build relationships in real life. The same concept makes for powerful film dialogue.
The more secure we feel in a relationship, the more likely we are to come out and say what we mean outright. But when things get emotionally risky, we hide our true wants and needs within the subtext. Your characters should do the same. Let's look at some examples.
In this scene from Thelma and Louise, the girls are on the run from the law. Louise is studying a map to find the quickest way to Mexico. It's through Texas, but Louise refuses to take that route. When Thelma asks point blank what happened in Texas, this is how Louise responds:
I just don't think it's the place I wanna get caught for doin' something like...if you blow a guy's head off with his pants down, believe me, Texas is the last place you wanna get caught!
Whatever happened to Louise in Texas is too painful to talk about, so she avoids answering directly.
Here's an example from American Beauty, written by Alan Ball. Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Carolyn's (Annette Benning) marriage is in trouble. They're on the couch. Lester is drinking a beer. He's frustrated with the materialistic, joyless woman his wife has become. She's furious with him for upsetting her carefully orchestrated balance. He tries to reach the woman she used to be by reminiscing about their early days. She wants to resist but is feeling drawn to the image he paints. They lean toward each other. Will she enter the relationship? Or will she pull away? Just before their lips meet, she says:
Lester. You're going to spill beer on the couch.
Seemingly banal, her line reveals how ambivalent she really feels about reconnecting with her husband.
There are times characters say exactly what they mean, such as at a breaking point moment where the tension finally peaks. If you've done the groundwork and set up the moment, it will seem totally natural, as if the characters can no longer hold back. They've tried to deny the truth, to hide it, or to hint at it—but now they spell it out. At such moments, text and subtext converge.
Use subtext to add layers of meaning, your script will have forward motion, and your characters will always be well-rounded individuals who beg to leap off the page and onto the screen.