From a very early age human beings learn to understand other human beings primarily non-verbally, i.e. by interpreting gestures, intonations, facial expressions, body language, etc. As soon as children begin to master that most human of all phenomena, language with syntax, they realize that a person’s non-verbal behaviour is generally a more reliable indicator of their motives and intentions than their words.
Especially when it comes to their parents.
Being a parent myself, I can quite easily see why this is: You want the best for your children, you see them imitating your worst habits and you tell them it’s not a good idea. They understand your words, but they see a contradictory message in your actions.
Now the child begins to learn a different set of rules, which govern the concept of calling a spade a spoon in order to avoid trouble. Once the child has mastered this principle, the next step is to pretend this whole as-if situation doesn’t exist. Pretend you don’t see or hear people’s speech and behaviour contradicting each other. Pretend for long enough and the trick becomes second nature. Like learning to ride a bike. No need for conscious effort any longer.
Lo and behold, the child has graduated from Subtext 101! It’s now ready to start writing screenplays. Because great screenplays are full of scenes which are “… not about what they’re really about …” to paraphrase David Mamet.
All screenwriters were children once, so presumably they’ve all been through this same learning curve. But they have to be able to consciously and deliberately switch between these different levels of communication. Between the literal content of speech and the accompanying, incongruous non-verbal communication, or subtext, as this is also known.
In other words, the trick is not to think too much about what subtext really is, but rather to understand that as a human being you’re already an expert at it.
Here’s a little exercise: Next time you’re interacting with another human being, imagine you’re a subtextually challenged child watching an adult desperately trying not to say what they really mean.
Have fun … and take a notebook with.