Creating Engaging Dialog by Using Subtext

We’ve been looking at the basic components to constructing great dialog in our fiction. As one of the twelve key pillars of novel construction, the strength of a novel hinges on dialog that is compressed and engaging. Which means every line of dialog should sing, and be helpful in advancing the plot and revealing character.

In this post we’re going to look at subtext. Just what is subtext? Subtext refers to the thoughts that the character is not saying—ideas that are being suggested but not actually voiced directly. They are below (sub) the text.

Real people use subtext constantly. We almost never really say what we mean or voice what we really want. We hide our feelings and cover with expressions and words that imply something other. We do this to protect ourselves, or to present a certain impression. I would venture to say that real people use subtext more often than not in everything they say. Pay attention to people’s conversations (without being obvious or invading privacy). You can learn a lot about subtext by doing this (and hearing yourself!).

Wow, that means writers who want to create realistic dialog are going to have to work on crafting subtext in their dialog. It’s not always easy to do, but I’m going to give you some suggestions on how to do this well.

  1. First write your scene and have characters say outright what they want and mean. Then go through and change the wording so that they aren’t saying those things. One way you can do this is by having a character talk about something other, while your narrative is revealing she is trying to say something else. Example (before and after):

“John, I’m worried that you don’t really love me.”

“Mary, you’re right. I really don’t. But I have to keep up appearances. We don’t want the children to think anything’s wrong.”

“Well, that really hurts. I guess I’ll have to just accept that fact and pretend I don’t care.”

Okay, I hope you see how unreal this is, even though this is the truth of how John and Mary feel.

Here’s a different scene, this time showing feelings as a way to act as subtext:

“John, are you finished eating?” Mary fidgeted, her heart aching at the way he was ignoring her. She rattled the empty serving dishes on the table a bit loudly, right in front of him. “John?”

“What? Oh, sure.” John went back to reading his book, his brows furrowed in concentration. Mary waited for more, but he said nothing else. Then his face brightened. “Hey, what’s for dessert?”

“Chocolate cake—your favorite.” She played with her apron strings, then, with clenched teeth, she threw the apron to the ground. “I’ll go get you a piece.”

Mary isn’t saying what she really feels, but we can tell by her show of emotion.

You can go through and find lines of dialog that are too direct in telling what a character feels or wants and then have her say something unrelated to what’s important, as a way to cover her feelings.

  1. Put in moments of silence. Silence implies other feelings and thoughts. When a character pauses, doesn’t answer right away, gives some emotional “tell” with a gesture or expression, that is subtext.
  2. Tension can thicken when characters do talk about mundane things but the reader knows there is something very intense going on plot-wise between them. Again, the characters’ physical movements, tone of voice, and behavior can belie what they are actually saying.

When you have characters constantly in conflict with each other and experiencing inner conflict, the result is a lot of subtext that comes across in dialog. A character who is struggling with feelings may blurt out the truth, but often it’s only a partial truth. There is so much more being left unsaid.

So think about the things your character isn’t saying and why. You might have her think some of this as internal direct thoughts, if she really knows how she feels. But even in the internal dialog with herself, she may not be thinking what she really feels. She may not know what she feels or the cause of her emotional upset. The more you can have her physical actions and reactions show something inconsistent with what she vocalizes, the more that conflict will come through. Subtext, then, really is all about conflict.

Some Technical Suggestions

Regarding writing dialog of any kind, here are some tips to making it flow smoothly:

  • Don’t go on for more than five or six lines of dialog between characters without making it clear who is speaking. With only two speaking, after a while it’s hard to keep track of who is talking. Just adding “Mary said” here and there can help avoid confusion. With more than two conversing, it’s essential you make it clear with every line who the speaker is.
  • Conversely, don’t use a speaker tag with every line. Remove unnecessary speaker tags. If it’s clear who is speaking, you don’t need one. A narrative tag here or there will indicate who is speaking. Example: John shook his head. “I really don’t care.”
  • Put a character’s speech and action together in a paragraph. Failure to do this causes confusion as to who is speaking. It’s assumed the last person mentioned is the speaker, so if you do not group the speech and action for each character in separate paragraphs, you’ll have the wrong characters speaking your lines.
  • Don’t use fancy verbs for speech (speaker tags). Just use said, asked, replied, answered. Once in a while you might punch with a different verb. “There,” she declared. “I found it.” You want those speaker tags to be functional and invisible. Readers blip over the word said. And that’s what you want.
  • Don’t use adverbs with your speaker tags. You’ve probably heard this, but it’s a good admonition. A good writer will show the intent and emotion in what’s being said and with body language. Instead of writing “Go away,” he said angrily, write “Go away,” he said, clenching his fists, his face flushing with heat.
  • Read it aloud. You will hear the wordiness or stiffness of dialog by doing this. It helps a lot.
  • Use contractions where appropriate. Unless it befits the character to speak without using contractions (it’s instead of it is, for example), be sure to use them.

Really, writing great dialog with tension to the max is all about showing, not telling. Instead of telling via speaker or narrative tags what someone is feeling, show with gestures, tone, expression, and body language. Pull out some of your favorite novels and highlight the lines that show that emotion, which will also come across as subtext under the “other” things being said.

By studying authors who do this well, you will get a feel for how to do this. One book that really impressed me with deftly wielded subtext was Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Her characters, all with conflicting needs, hardly ever say what they really feel or want. The dialog is snappy and fresh, with characters interrupting one another and talking about completely other things than what is on their mind.

We’re going to speed ahead into our tenth key pillar of novel construction: Voice . . . Unique for Each Character. And so, yes, you get a new checklist! Be sure to print these out and use  them with each of your novels. Each checklist gives you twelve sets of questions (and some challenging tasks) to help ensure your pillar is strong and sturdy.

Inspection Checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs

Inspection Checklist 7-Setting with a Purpose

Inspection Checklist 8-Tension Ramped to the Max

Inspection Checklist 9-Dialog Compressed and Essential

Feature Photo Credit: pedrosimoes7 via Compfight cc

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