Subtext in Dialogue and Life…

I recently gave a talk at Write Angles about subtext—a topic that interests me a lot, perhaps because I’m from a family where people rarely admit what they are really thinking. In my family, we hardly ever say what we mean, so things have to be inferred, and if you are a careful listener/observer, you can hear what people really think between the lines of what they say…

Subtext—that thing that is implied by the text but never explicitly said—is one of the most compelling things about good writing, too. Subtext is the thing that keeps a reader guessing. It keeps a reader on her toes. It keeps them wondering: what is that pink elephant in the room.

Think about it: when you’re home for the holidays this year, and you and your mother get into an argument about which gravy is better, store-bought or scratch, is the argument really about the gravy? Most likely not. Most likely, It’s about lifestyle choices or values, or the fact that, after all these years, your mom still can’t forgive you for moving so far away…

Admit it. You know that it’s true.

In our writing, too, this sort of bubbling surface tension needs to exist, and it needs to exist in dialogue in order to create scenes that feel authentic and charged and full of that delicious narrative tension that pulls the reader forward.

So how do you create subtext in dialogue?

  1. The first step is to know your characters. Work to understand what they desire and what they fear in each scene. Before you begin to write dialogue, see if you can identify what each one wants that the other one won’t give.
  2. Then, try writing the on the nose conversation: the overt feelings and desires of your characters. This means, over-write everything they are actually thinking and feeling. Exaggerate. Have fun with this. Make it as bad and over-written as possible!
  3. Now shorten it! Cut it to the bones. Try to have your characters speak no more than a couple of sentences at a time. The more you condense, the more you’ll be developing the subtext. See if you can cut it to three or five word sentences.
  4. Let your characters conceal/deny or avoid their true feelings/intentions instead of stating exactly what they mean.
  5. Try non-answering: remember that people hardly ever directly answer each other when speaking…
  6. Try to use an action rather than a modifier to show how a character is feeling.
  7. Create tension by having your character’s thoughts or actions or gestures run counter to their speech. (“Of course I love you,” she said, turning away)
  8. If in doubt about whether or not you need a scene with direct dialogue, ask yourself if the conversation changes anything… Does the scene reveal something new? Does it alter the relationship between your characters? Do the characters have an emotional stake in the outcome of the conversation? If not, then you probably don’t need to show it as a scene.
  9. Don’t let your characters be fully articulate in every moment. Fragments are good. Stumbling, changing topic, interruptions, avoiding questions–these all help reveal a subtext.
  10. Keep exposition out of your dialogue most of the time.

And listen carefully to the things your family members are not saying at your gatherings this holiday season!  You could learn a lot about writing, and life…

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