Subtext in Dialog

Dialog in fiction is a proving ground for a writer. Here is where your ear for truth, your understanding of your characters, and your ability to convince us this scene is “real” comes to a head.

Too often, however, we write dialog that fails to snap and sounds a bit forced.

One of my favorite remedies for this problem is laying in something unspoken. Something is swimming under the surface of the conversation. It might be a minnow or a whale, but whether large or small, it is a lie or buried truth.

Subtext: buried topics

Hidden or unexpressed topics (called subtext) can lend more realism to dialog. This is because often the most important things on our minds cannot be said. People evade saying the truth for many reasons. Among them:

  • We’re afraid to be dismissed. (Think of courtship dialogue, for example.)
  • The subject is too personal or uncomfortable to share with that particular person. (For example, a grandmother raves about a grandchild, implying her unmarried daughter is missing out on family bliss. The daughter sees the manipulation, but sidesteps it.)
  • We can’t bear to engage with it because it’s too painful. (The other person is talking about their new baby. Unknown to them, the other person’s child died.)

Unspoken truths carry power by virtue of the silence. The magic of buried truths is that the deeper things are buried, the hotter they become. Think compost, and how it feels warm to the touch!

Sometimes the buried truth will spill out under stressful conditions. The character may artlessly blurt out the truth. When he does, he may not recognize that he has done so. (“I coulda been a contender.”) Or she now trusts the other person enough to give voice to the hidden thing. There are many variations on using things that cannot be said.

Note: For such submerged topics to add depth, the reader has to know what that “most important thing” is. Otherwise the reader’s experience of the dialog remains on the surface.

Sometimes subtext is as superficial as the issue of who will control the topic, as when the detective asks a suspect “Where were you Tuesday evening?” The response: “And where were you, inspector?” This is a power play, in subtext.

On the nose dialog

The opposite of evasive dialog is something called on the nose dialog, a style that when carried to an extreme can be painful to read. On the nose dialog is the first choice of inexperienced writers. This kind of dialog is a simple exchange between characters where people say exactly what they mean, nothing withheld.

Dialog of this sort may be most efficient for highly commercial fiction; but even there, the occasional use of subtext can lend snap to conversations. You can’t get buried topics into every scene, but the more you set up your novel for conflict, the more you cast your actors to be in opposition, the more material you have to work with.

Play with subtext; use when it is right for your characters, your scenes. Sometimes when we stop making sense, we reveal the heart more truly.

2 Responses

  1. Tom Hopp says:

    Thanks for these insights, Kay. I hope someday you’ll assemble these blog entries into a book on writing techniques. It would be a great help to intermediate writers trying to rise to your level of mastery.

    Now that you’ve told me, I can see I’ve been using subtexts without really quite understanding what I was doing. It helps to get it clarified, for instance, with the young hero and heroine of my Dinosaur Wars novels, Chase Armstrong and Kit Daniels. These two fell in love in the early stories and I probably played it pretty straight in writing their dialogs. After all, simply falling in love isn’t all that hard to do. Lately, though, I’ve given them the subtext of discord: they’re both deeply in love, but he’s older and ready to marry and start a home and family life. She’s still in college and feels it’s too soon to give up her freedom. Ta-da! They just never see eye to eye anymore, so the subtextual conflict is in full swing with each dialog.

    Thanks again for giving me an understanding of this skill set. I’ll keep honing it.

  2. I second the request that you create a book from these blog entries. This post is a gem.

    To me, it’s interesting that almost every conversation in real life has at least some subtext to it. We’re all masters of subtext, but it’s difficult to master in writing. I wonder why. Nice post.

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