“What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.”
~Sol Stein, How to Grow a Novel
The basic definition of subtexting when it comes to dialogue is that the character is saying one thing and thinking something totally different. It’s what (I’ve heard) wives do to their husbands when they don’t want to come right out and say something directly. It’s what we do when we’re trying to get someone over to our point of view while making them think it’s their idea to begin with. It’s also the things we say when we know we have to cover up what we’re really thinking/feeling. It’s when we yell at our roommate’s “stupid” dog when we’re really mad at the roommate for not putting a new roll of toilet paper on. And it can be done whether you’re in that person’s point of view or not:
- Sweat beaded on Major’s upper lip, and he rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Meredith, I have to tell you something.”
The hyperventilating feeling returned to her chest. Would he now declare his feelings for her? Put her out of years of agony? “Yes?”
“I need you to know how I feel about you . . . ” he wiped his hand down his face, “about you and Ward Breaux. I’m—I’m really . . . happy that you’ve managed to find time to have a life outside of work. You deserve to have some fun and joy in your life, and I hope that you find it.”
Noooooooooooooooooo! Emptiness swallowed up any warm, pleasant feelings she’d had this evening. He wasn’t supposed to be happy for her. He was supposed to be jealous, insanely jealous, over the fact she’d gone out on a couple of dates with someone else.
“Thanks, Major. That means . . . a lot to me.”
(excerpted from Menu for Romance © 2008 by Kaye Dacus)
See how neither of them are saying what they (probably) really feel? Actually, because the beginning of this scene is in Major’s POV, the reader knows at this point that Major really isn’t happy about the fact that Meredith has been out on a couple of dates with someone else.
Because I write romance, I use subtexting a lot, especially as the attraction—and the tension—grows between the characters. Another genre that’s great for it is the mystery genre as the sleuth goes about trying to gather information. It’s not the direct-line-of-questioning dialogue. It’s when they find a common interest with the person they want information from, or when they relay an anecdote from their own past (whether real or made up) to get the witness to open up.
One thing to keep in mind is that subtexting isn’t the same thing as out-and-out lying. Sure, it will occasionally include some falsehoods (as in the excerpt above, because Major wants to be happy for Meredith but really isn’t), but having one character straight-up lie to another one isn’t really subtexting. The subtext part of it is the important part.
Subtexting means there’s something going on underneath the surface with the character who’s speaking. Subtexting also shines a brighter spotlight on the character’s internal motivations and goals. If a character is a people-pleaser, she’s going to say the things she thinks people want to hear. If she’s self-centered, she’s going to say things that will swing the attention of the conversation back onto herself—the more accomplished a narcissist she is, the more subtle she’ll be at this.
It’s easy when you’re in your subtexting-character’s viewpoint to show the reader that what she’s saying is not really what she’s thinking. But it’s a little harder when it’s a character whose head you aren’t in at the moment. Head-hopping is very tempting when it come to a dialogue exchange when both characters are in the subtext mode. But you must resist that siren’s call! Here’s where visualizing/acting-out techniques come in handy.
Either close your eyes or get up to act out the scene. Let the dialogue flow through your mind and imagine or act out each character’s body language. How would your character stand when he’s saying something but thinking something else? (He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand; sweat beaded his upper lip; he wiped his hand down his face.) What are the subconscious signals her body might give off that she means something other than what she’s saying? (Her voice went up two octaves; she twirled a strand of hair around her finger; Her smile . . . was the same one she wore when dealing with difficult clients.)
Remember, these types of physical manifestations are going to be different for each character—and are a great way to build in some quirks and mannerisms that make each character distinct.
One of the greatest uses of subtext is to build anticipation in your readers. Readers want the gloves to come off, to see the conflict, to “hear” the characters finally say all the things they wish they could say in real-life scenarios. But just as in real life, having the characters come out and say what they really mean needs to be saved for times of intense emotion or conflict. Think about the TV shows Moonlighting and Cheers (I know, I’m taking you back a ways). Both of those show thrived on the tension between the main characters (Maddie and David, Sam and Diane) and the fact that they could never admit their attraction to/love for each other . . . and what happened when they finally did? Viewers lost interest and the show either tanked (Moonlighting) or had to take a totally new direction with new characters (Cheers—and then with an almost identical storyline with Sam and Rebecca).
By saving moments of clarity, of revelation, for climactic moments, it makes them all the more potent for your characters and for your readers.
I hate feeling like I keep stumping for this movie, but the film You’ve Got Mail has some of the greatest examples of subtexted dialogue, as does When Harry Met Sally. For those lovers of classic literature, the proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice—while not the greatest example of use of dialogue—is one of the greatest examples of subtext in English-language literature.
So whip out those WIPs and see if your characters are saying what they mean or if you’ve employed subtext to grow and develop your characters and conflicts.
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