One of the hallmarks of a good writer is a dialog rich in subtext.
So says R. Kayne in an article entitled “What Is Subtext?” at the WiseGeek. Certainly other writing professionals concur. Author K. M. Weiland says
We spend a lot of time polishing our dialogue and learning how to make it sound as lifelike and powerful as possible. But amidst all this polishing, we can’t afford to miss one of the most important dichotomies in fiction.
Sometimes the most important moments in dialogue are about what isn’t said. (“What Isn’t Said: Subtext in Dialogue”)
But what exactly is subtext in dialogue? It is the creation of underlying meaning behind the spoken words.
People in real life often say one thing when they mean another, or at best say only part of what they’re thinking or feeling. Characters in novels need to do the same if they are to have that nuanced feel of reality, that deeper meaning behind what they say.
Christian suspense author and conference writing instructor Brandilyn Collins explains the device clearly:
Do you know that lots of times when people talk, they don’t say what they mean? Their words are on one level, and the meaning lies underneath. The meaning may not have much at all to do with the spoken words. This is called subtexted dialogue (“Subtexting”)
While the use of subtexting is the mark of a good writer, its improper use can do the opposite. After all, we’re talking about communicating to readers what a character is thinking or feeling by not saying to the other characters in the scene the plain and simple facts. Such communication is subtle and therefore harder to convey without confusing the reader.
In no way does the author want readers to be unclear about what the character intends, or they may conclude that he misled them by having the character say one thing and do something else.
It’s also important to note that subtexting is not lying. The character may not wish to say what he’s thinking, but his motive is not to deceive the person he’s with. Rather, he has some emotional reason for withholding what he’s saying. He may think the person he’s talking to isn’t particularly interested, so he gives a partial answer hoping to generate a response. Or she may find the topic too painful because giving further information might cause her to break down.
“You’re early.” Sasha checked the clock above the fireplace. “Is everything OK?”
“Todd said he could finish up alone.”
“I thought this was your weekend to work together.”
“I thought so too.”
In this scenario, the subtexted lines could possibly lead to more direct dialogue, but often the underlying meaning is never spelled out.
In addition, a character, just as a person in real life, may imply rather than state what he’s thinking because he’s with someone who knows him so well, she doesn’t need him to spell out every detail.
- Example: “You tired, babe?”
This simple line of dialogue could have a variety of meanings based on the context and the relationship between the characters. Let’s suppose this is a husband talking to his wife. He could be saying, The night is still young; let’s go out. Or he could be saying, You look a bit frazzled; did your meeting go badly? He could even be saying, How about having sex?
If he says the line with anger, in the middle of a fight, it could have implications regarding his intentions for their marriage.
The secret to using subtexting successfully, then, is to create a scene in which the character’s motives are clear and the underlying meaning of the lines of dialogue fits his thoughts and emotions better than the spoken words do.