TEXT VS. SUBTEXT, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH…
If staring at my pages were an Olympic event, I’d win. Right now, I’m thinking about my characters – their very conception. True, for me, the focal point of the script is the story as a whole and how it explores the related questions that interest me (a/k/a the theme). Like Aaron Sorkin, Gary Ross and many others, I organize my scripts around ideas that I hope are important, a set of ideas to bind all the scenes together.
That doesn’t mean I can ignore the characters. A common note every writer receives at some point is, “Your characters need more development,” or “They don’t seem real.” The development exec doesn’t really mean what she says. It’s not her fault; she isn’t a writer. What she means is, your characters must involve the audience. If the audience (which may be the reader in the case of a spec script) is not involved in the characters – the story is not working, pure and simple.
So, aside from organizing the story to explore a set of ideas that matter (and that is no small aside), how do I get the audience involved in my characters. That’s where the text and subtext ideas come in. “Text” is the literal meaning of the words on the page. “Subtext” is what the words really mean. If they are one and the same, the audience is bored.
The central concept I use to draw life into the words – to add subtext to the text (e.g. to make the words mean something other than what they literally say) is this:
Each character must have a strong clear point of view. For example, to go back to an old standard I refer to a lot, not because it was such a hot movie, but because it is an excellent screenplay (a whole other topic – how come great screenplays sometimes make mediocre films?), let’s look at “Family Man”. Jack, the lead character, believes that the high-flying success driven material life is ideal. That is his point of view. It is clear and strong. Through action in the first act, we learn his point of view. Not only do we learn it, but we learn that it is very important to him, e.g. clear and strong.
From that point on, whatever he says is spoken from that point of view – we do not need to hear him say it again. Therefore, when he discovers his world has been changed so that he is now a husband and father, and he says, “It’s just two kids, right?” – he is not simply counting children – he is trying to minimize what he sees as a bad situation. He did not say, “I’m glad I only have two kids and not three, because I think kids will interfere with my high-flying successful materialistic life.” He did not have to, because he has a point of view that we already know. All those extra words are subtext. The audience gets to add them; they are involved. This same point of view informs every word he says. The text should mostly talk around it. If the point of view is clear and strong, the audience will add it, they’ll enjoy adding it, and you will have “fully developed” characters.
Have I said enough about this? Just scratching the surface, really, but it’s late and I have pages to get through.