Subtext is a key element in transforming blah serviceable dialogue into dazzling dialogue. Why? Because great, genuine sounding dialogue happens at two levels: what is spoken and what is unspoken. What is said and what is meant.
Children, drunks, iconoclasts, and people with impaired social skills tend to say exactly what they mean all the time. The rest of the world communicates differently. We say one thing when we mean another. We speak indirectly, such as when flirting or hinting. We lie. We speak sarcastically. We say things that have double meanings. We talk around uncomfortable subjects. We avoid saying what we mean out of consideration for the feelings of others, out of cowardice, out of fear of rejection, and for a host of other reasons.
Let’s examine the difference between what is said and what is meant with a few examples.
“You didn’t call so I got stuck with the tickets,” Rose said.
“I apologized. What more do you want?” Vincent opened his hands toward her.
Being a guy, Vincent might take Rose at her word to never mind the waste of the tickets. But did Rose really mean what she said? Never mind means the same as fine in an argument. In her mind she is plotting payback or she has decided further explanation isn’t worthy of her time.
Find the subtext, the unspoken messages, in the following exchange between strangers outside a hotel restroom in Manhattan.
Blocking the door, Blake held out his hands. “Please, help me.”
The lady planted her fist at her waist just above her hip.
“Ma’am, there’s a young lady in there I’d like to talk to. Would you ask her to come out?”
“Why are you calling me ma’am?” She raised an eyebrow.
A smile tugged up one corner of her mouth. She looked him up and down the way his mother examined a horse.
He straightened to his full height.
Blake smiled at his dumb luck.
“You’re not from the city are you?”
Notice when the woman is insulted and when she forgives him. Then she kind of insults him at the end. The unspoken message is flirting. Neither one comes out and admits the attraction, but the reader reads it between the lines.
Imagine an argument in which the topic of discussion had nothing to do with the real, unspoken topic. George and Susie bicker about how to set the table. Their conversation begins with Susie correcting George because he’s “doing it wrong.” He backs away muttering how she’s never satisfied. Chances are George and Susie are actually angry about an important unspoken issue: sex, finances, unfulfilled promises, a secret, control, you name it.
The important unspoken issue they are afraid to discuss will create friction that sparks dozens of meaningless arguments. Somewhere down the line, in the heat of the moment, one of them will let slip or blast out the real issue. Build that moment for the reader with the smaller battles.
So how do authors craft subtext? First and foremost, know the characters. After writing a scene, go back and think through the scene from deep inside each character’s point of view.
In the following example a groom is watching a bridesmaid wrangle the bride’s dress.
Blake enjoyed a view of Terri’s ankle as her skirt was hiked up. “Can I help with whatever she’s doing?”
The maid-of-honor huffed before deftly hooking a small loop to a button on the back of Terri’s dress. “Tada!”
“You meant to bunch it up in the back?”
“Now the train won’t drag behind her,” the maid of honor told him as if explaining it to a child.
“Then why not just make the dress the right length to begin with?”
Both women stared for a moment before laughing.
Terri said, “That’s so manly.”
Both male and female readers can identify with the characters because the man speaks like a man and the women like women. An excellent resource for learning gender differences is Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray, Ph.D. Gray wrote his book to help men and women communicate better, but hey, writers can use this knowledge to ramp up conflict. Hehehehe.
Sarcasm, the tool of cowards, allows a character to say exactly what is meant while hiding behind the disguise of the jester. When called out, the jester will say it was just a joke, and accuse the recipient of the joke of lacking a sense of humor. Think of sarcasm as subtext hiding in plain sight. The Deep South version of subtext hiding in plain sight starts with “bless his soul” or “we need to pray for him” which is followed by discussion of an absent person’s transgression. On the surface they are conducting intercessory prayer; the subtext is gossip.
Print out a scene with dialogue from your work in progress. In the margin after a line of dialogue, write what the characters really mean. How many places in the scene does a character saying one thing but mean another? If the characters say exactly what they mean all the time, then the dialogue is flat. Don’t be that writer. Go for depth. Readers will thank you.
Joni is the author of South of Justice, the first book in the Compass Crimes Series. She’s an aviation journalist and pilot. An active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, the Romance Writers of America, and the Florida Writers Association, she is hard at work on her next novel.
For more information go to: www.jonimfisher.com.
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