Mystery Man on Film has been doing a series on subtext by using the contributions of readers and screenwriting friends. It's a good exercise in muddling through what subtext is and what it means. I have to disagree with some of the subtext examples given, but the blog makes for good reading. Since one of the contributions is from me, I thought I'd repost it on my own blog, but make sure you visit Mystery Man on Film to read the others.
Aspiring screenwriters have widely differing ideas, opinions and misconceptions of what subtext actually is. Many believe it's a simple matter of reading between the lines while others believe that speaking metaphorically is also subtext. Neither is categorically true. There is nothing simple about writing subtext and metaphors aren't subtext unless the metaphor is being used for one example but also means something else. And, there's a difference between story subtext with double entendres and story subtext that has a single entendre but says what it means without saying it. What is a good definition for subtext? I don't know but if I had to make up one, I'd say it was "saying what you mean without really saying it."
EXAMPLES OF DOUBLE ENTENDRE SUBTEXT
RICK: I congratulate you.
VICTOR LAZLO: What for?
RICK: Your work.
VICTOR LAZLO: I try.
RICK: We all try. You succeed.
Rick means what he says, but he also means what he doesn't say. He's also talking about Victor's relationship with Else.
JACK: Now the important thing when you're penetrating the lunar module... is your attitude and your relative speed.
He demonstrates with a beer bottle and a drinking glass.
JACK: Now let's say this is me here in the command module, and this is you.
TRACEY: All right. Uh-huh.
JACK: In the LEM. This thing sticks out here in front, that's called the probe.
He inserts the neck of bottle into the glass.
TRACEY: Is that true?
JACK: Absolutely. And, Tracey,I'll tell ya, when you feel that thing slide in, everything's clickin', it's like no other.
Yeah, he's demonstrating the probe all right.
EXAMPLE OF SINGLE ENTENDRE SUBTEXT
--Raiders of the Lost Ark--
INDY: I never meant to hurt you.
MARION: I was a child! I was in love.
INDY: You knew what you were doing.
MARION: It was wrong. You knew it.
INDY: Look, I did what I did. I don't expect you to be happy about it. But maybe we can do each other some good.
MARION: Why start now?
INDY: Shut up and listen for a second. I want that piece your father had. I've got money.
MARION: How much?
The word "sex" isn't used here. But that's obviously what we're talking about. She's saying he used her. He's saying she wanted it.
Now, A word of caution to amateur screenwriters -- be careful what advice you take to heart from other amateurs. That includes me. Discussion is good. Discussion is healthy. But read what I have to say and draw your own conclusion. I am neither a professional screenwriter, nor script analyst.
And, while I strongly advise seeking out what the experts have to say about subtext, like this post from Ted Elliott on Subtext, I think it's also critical that every writer know his own story well enough to read any subjective comment by any expert OR amateur and be able to say, "yeah, that might work for me" or "pfft, doesn't apply in this case." But (there's always a but) don't get cocky and dismiss objective remarks. Some things are what they are and no amount of arguing will change it.
How do you learn the difference between subjective advice and objective comments? The same way you learned the difference between your grandfather's real stories about war and depression era living and the ones about miniature monkeys operating the red, yellow, and green lights inside traffic signals -- time, maturity, and hearing them over and over until you separated fact from fiction and opinion.
By the way, if you read that Ted-thread, be sure you also read his reply to a question about sub-subtext.