Writing About Craft
On Subtext in Dialogue
It’s Not you. It’s me.
By Rebecca Thomas
In Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field suggests that “dialogue serves two main purposes: Either it moves the story forward, or it reveals information about the main character” (72). I argue that dialogue has to do both. While we as prose writers have the ability to comment on the action in ways that screenwriters or playwrights cannot, dialogue is still crucial to propelling story forward and giving it depth. Good dialogue: Reveals Character Propels Plot Creates Tension Gives Insight into Emotion Suggests Backstory While it’s not necessary for dialogue to perform every function at all times, good dialogue should be achieving more than one of those tasks. On top of it all, good dialogue should be exciting. So, how do we as prose writers achieve good dialogue?
David Trotter explains subtext as “what’s under the text. It’s between the lines, the emotional content of words, what’s really meant. Dialogue is like an iceberg. The text is the visible part. The subtext is below. Audiences [or readers] seldom want to see the whole block of ice” (63). We see the importance of subtext in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” The story might just be about a couple sitting waiting for the train, but through subtext, the reader sees that it’s much, much more than that. The added subtext gives the story depth.
Why do readers like subtext so much? Why does subtext push your story forward?
For one thing, it’s natural. People rarely say what they mean. When writing dialogue, writers often adhere to the 180 degree rule: take what your character really means/wants to say and turn it completely around. People skirt issues; they dance around conflict. Your dialogue should do the same. Often, saying what you mean stops a story or scene.
Subtext creates tension. If you follow the 180 degree rule you’re inherently adding tension to your story. If people aren’t revealing everything, if things remain under the surface, both the readers and the characters have to work to understand what’s going on. This creates tension.
Subtext reveals character. How someone says something, responds to something, will inevitably reveal who they are. Consider how your character would react to something they fear or to something they want. What actions would they use? The cliché is that actions speak louder than words, but often in writing this is the case. Always consider if there is an action that will reveal the same information. Your character can be saying one thing, but if their actions reveal something else, you’re letting the reader know what’s really going on. Readers appreciate this; readers appreciate getting to figure out the truth on their own.
Subtext reveals wants and desires. One of the most important questions to know when writing a story is what is at stake for your character. Subtext can reveal this. Put your character in a situation where what they want is at hand. How do they respond?
The easiest, and I’d argue most fun, type of subtext is sexy subtext. In any romantic situation, this subtext emerges. When we’re around people that we like, we rarely say “I like you” or “I want to date you.” Instead, we dance around the issue, complimenting them on their shoes or their ability to make a burrito. Your dialogue can do this. It’s flirting with words the least kind of risky flirting there is.
The website “About a Screenplay” (which no longer exists) has six helpful hints for ways to create subtext in dialogue: 1. Use Action as a Response 2. Change the Subject 3. Imply Meaning, Instead of Directly Stating It 4. Use Metaphors 5. Use Words or Phrases that Have a Double Meaning 6. Answer a Question With a Question
In short, have your characters respond true to character and you’ll have iceberg dialogue.
A few final tips on writing dialogue: 1. Trust your gut. Write your dialogue without thinking about it too much. I seem to be most connected to my characters when I’m acting out the scene with them. When I stop to think about how they would react, my dialogue feels forced. Remember, you can always go back later and polish up your writing. 2. Trust your characters. If they respond in a surprising way, go with it. See where they take you. If it turns out to be a dead end, you simply delete it. 3. Read your dialogue out loud. I often talk out loud when I write my dialogue (note: this works much better now that I don’t have roommates). It might make you look crazy, but reading and acting out your dialogue will let you know when something catches the ear wrong. 4. Get to the heart of the matter. Skip pleasantries, skip chit chat. Chit chat isn’t fun in reality; it’s even less fun on the page. 5. Actions, actions, actions. Always envision how your characters move when they talk. Put it on the page. Put action on the page over dialogue. It’s often the quiet moments in a tense scene that tell the reader the most.
Works Cited and Consulted: “Six Ways to Create Subtext in Your Dialogue.” About A Screenplay. About a Screenplay. Web. 14 March 2010. (Website is no longer in service)
Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting: A Step-By-Step Guide From Concept to Finished Script. Revised. New York: Bantam Dell, 2005. Print.
Trotter, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible. 4th ed. Beverly Hills: Silman-James Press 2005. Print.