As you may have heard many times before, screenwriting is an art form. Something that can take years if not decades to master. Knowing how to write with efficiency and convey story without overwriting can take a great deal of experiential learning to come by. It’s not easy but by understanding the medium, watching many films and seeing how other screenwriters manage to do it, you can get there.
Writing an outline can be half the work in plotting out your story and refining those points until you and whoever you’re writing for or with is happy with the proposed project and its direction. A critical start that serves as your blueprint, it can make your job so much easier than simply writing by association. While there’s nothing wrong with taking more of an inspirational approach, it can make for slow-going… especially when multiple screenwriters are involved.
Once you’ve got your basic outline nailed down, the trick is to fill the pages with action and dialogue that creates a rich, layered and meaningful story that compels a viewer on that journey. There’s so much to invest when it comes to writing complex characters and engaging stories that we can get lost in the detail.
The trick is to use subtext. This isn’t about what’s being said but rather about what isn’t being said. It may sound like an easy job but going between the lines is a real challenge that separates good from great screenplays. Think about the most impactful moments or scenes from recent memory. Were they straightforward or was there another dimension to what was going on?
This added dimension is created through subtext, going beyond the beyond to create meaning through juxtaposition. When it comes to the storytelling process of editing, this is done by putting one shot in contrast to another to create meaning. In a similar way, screenwriters introduce one word or phrase to create meaning by counteracting the previous line. In its most basic sense, it schisms enough to create conflict or imbalance. This situational dynamic helps foster depth, complexity and ultimately meaning.
When a character says “I love you” to another character, there are many ways to respond. Saying nothing is a response. Slapping the other character is a response. How about the recipient saying “yeah, so what?”. Each of these replies creates an undercurrent of meaning, a greater depth to the dynamic between the characters. It not only informs us of their character but says so much about the relationship. Simply having the other character say “…and I love you” may be good enough in the scene but often times is overly predictable and dull.
Subtext is the spice that turns an average and plodding script into something more meaty and captivating. It’s the gradient or texture that turns a down-the-line scene into something so much more entertaining and intriguing. Getting the story through its paces is one thing but it’s also about enriching the story through the power of subtext.