How To Write Better Dialog 3: Subtext
Subtext is all the information about a scene that is communicated indirectly in the hopes that the audience will understand it without it being stated outright. It’s the stuff that’s on the characters’ minds when they speak. It motivates their word choices and their actions. By these choices, we can then infer a great deal about what is really going on in the head of a character.
In books, there is an additional layer to subtext. There’s the subtext of the scene, and there’s the subtext of the dialogue. The subtext of the scene is anything that never appears on the page at all. The subtext of the dialogue is whatever is not spoken by the characters (but which can appear in the accompanying narrative). There is a place for both and there must be a balance.
Subtext is tied directly to motivations and premises. In other words, you need to answer these questions:
- What does the character want that the other characters in the scene can provide?
- What does the character believe is true about the world and their situation?
- What status transactions are at play?
Concerning the first, this isn’t about what the character wants in the Big Picture Narrative Arc of your story. It is about what the character wants right now, and from that person. It could be as major as getting a general to agree to drop a nuclear bomb to as trivial as seeking validation from a friend that the main character is doing the right thing. They may not even be conscious of their desire, particularly in the case where a scene is driven by status interaction rather than objectives.
The second is about premises, which I dealt with here.
In other words, what is the scene really about? And what is each conversation in the scene really about?
To reiterate, dialogue subtext includes anything that the characters don’t come out and say directly. But this information can appear in the narrative around it. This includes dialogue tags, italicized thought passages, omniscient narrator explanations, footnotes, or whatever other conventions you are employing in your work.
Typically, subtext of this sort is filtered in some fashion through an unreliable narrator. If it is an omniscient third person, it may be the point of view of a historian documenting the events and it may be shaped by their ignorance. If the book is first person, or limited third person, it is colored by the bias of the point of view character for that scene.
“Are you going to the beach this afternoon?” Toby asked.
The asshole knew very well where Caitlin was going; he was just trying to trap her into admitting it. So she shocked him into silence by giving him exactly what he was asking for: “Yes. With your brother.”
You can see where understanding Caitlin’s thoughts gives us some hint about what Toby’s motivation is. As the scene continues, we may find out that Caitlin was wrong in her assumption, or we may find out she was exactly right. What’s important is that we know why Caitlin came out and admitted the truth: it was a defiant expression based on the belief that it would work out in her favor.
It’s sometimes thought that omniscient narrators can’t use this because it becomes “telling” instead of “showing.” However, omniscient narrators certainly can employ this to create dramatic irony. With the reader having access to the thoughts and motivations of both characters, the drama of the scene is driven by the audience knowing that the characters are just misunderstanding one another.
In a certain variety of first person and limited third person where the narrator is narrating from far in the future, they may have attained a degree of omniscience. You may see passages such as: “I found out later that Patricia was lying to me from the start, but at the moment, I was taking her at her word.” This is another way of introducing dramatic irony where the narrator comes out and states that the character is about to make a mistake in judgment.
Another important element of dialogue subtext is using dialogue tags. This isn’t about using tags to spruce it up and add variety in place of the word “said,” though. When building subtext, the dialogue tag should be there in order to tell us something that is not readily apparent based upon the words used in dialogue.
“I hate you,” she said with a smile.
“I’m proud of you,” Joe said, but it was a toss-off comment. He hoped Riley would be satisfied with the praise and leave.
“They’re destroying the city!” he shouted gleefully.
Scenic subtext is the tricky one, but if you’ve been following the prior two articles, it should come as no surprise when I say that status transactions, and premises and biases are your hammer and screwdriver when building in subtext. Once you understand what a scene is really about, what the characters believe is true, and how the characters relate to one another, you shouldn’t need to have characters explaining themselves to one another. If you understand those aspects, then it will flow naturally.
Some writers prefer to save subtext for its own separate revision pass. The thought is, writing scenes without subtext lets them get to the point sooner so they themselves know what the book’s “roadmap” is. Then they go back and scrub the scenes of the “telling” dialogue and let the audience infer more. I happen to like this method myself because it frees you up to just write the damn scene, without getting hung up on crafting a Checkov play on every page in the rough draft. Once you know what the scene is really about (possibly because a character has come out and said it), you can hold that thought in your mind as you break it down and build it back up in revision.
If you are doing it by revision passes, the simplest way to add scenic subtext is by removing unnecessary dialogue subtext. Unnecessary dialogue subtext can be seen as an attempt to explain scenic subtext. Contrast that with necessary dialogue subtext cues which, if removed, meaningfully change the nature of the scene. This is particularly apparent in the case of dialogue tags and dramatic irony. Don’t remove necessary subtext cues.
If you’re building from scratch, don’t just have characters answer questions directly, or respond to provocation for the sake of it. Each time you put a ” ” on the page, consider why that character is speaking and what they hope to accomplish with their speech.