Dazzling Dialogue—Part VIII

Have you ever had two conversations going on at the same time? One surface. One just below. That’s subtext. When done effectively, subtext adds depth with a sparkle to your dialogue, making it dazzle. Click to Tweet #DazzlingDialogue #amwriting

Subtext in dialogue should be what the scene is really about. It’s called subtext, because it’s “underneath.”

It’s a meaning under what’s been said. Especially effective with two people who know each other well, subtext makes dialogue much more interesting. However, subtext can also be in a dialogue between strangers.

I’m not an expert in subtext, and I haven’t used it as much in what I’ve written—probably because I’m not as comfortable with it as I should be. But I’m going to work on it, see if I can improve.

Subtext in a conversation can sparkle the dialogue because the characters don’t say what they mean. It’s true-to-life dialogue, because most of us don’t say everything we mean. We veil our everyday conversations to get an outcome.

Certain segments of society are probably better at hiding their true meaning in what they say than others. But let’s look at some short examples.

Author and writing guru Sol Stein advises having characters answer questions they have not been asked, the way we do in real life.

An example:

“What are you doing here, Jim?” she said.

“Have you seen George?”

“I’m asking why you’re here, Jim.”

“George is not going to be happy when he hears what I’ve got to say.”

See how the subtext, the indirect dialogue, adds tension and conflict?

Here’s a definition of subtext I found from my CWG Journeyman course. “An underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation. In other words, two people are speaking to one another about something the third party does not ‘get.’ Parents often do this when they don’t want their children to know what they’re talking about.

Another example — from a dialogue exercise in Journeyman. Deanne and Ken are a married couple who have been rousted from their bed late at night by the police. Deanne is a chocolatier. Police think she may have smuggled drugs in her truffles. They’ve asked to see her orders.

“What day did you say that was?” Deanne tilted her head to one side.

“Last Thursday.” Detective Richards flipped pages in his notebook until he came to a clean page.

“Darling, you remember that day.” Deanne started down the hallway.

“I certainly do…” Ken snickered.

“Mrs. Smythe?” Richards called after her.

Only Deanne and Ken know about “that day.” The detective is left in the dark.

Subtext adds depth and meaning to written conversation. Make dialogue dazzle using implication, innuendo, and insinuation. Click to Tweet #amwriting #DazzlingDialogue Do you use subtext in your dialogue? Leave a comment and let me know.

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