Tag Archives: Subtext

More on Dialogue Subtext

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Subtext

For our purposes, subtext in dialogue, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning hiding beneath the obvious. Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo and is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

Although there are many techniques for generating subtext, in today’s post, I’d like to explore two important ways which may assist you in doing so.

The Lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve actually occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. There are several ways to do this. The wider sense of a lie in terms of subtext can be characterised by a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, change of subject, and the like.

So, when one character asks of another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that the answer is evasive because it fails directly to answer the question, parrying instead, with another question.

The overall context of the subtext in this example, is, therefore, The Lie, but is specifically modified by a sense of evasiveness, although any one of the other modifiers in our list could suffice, depending on the context.

Manipulation

Another useful category for subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when her or his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a certain secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well…It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred sows the seed of suspicion by suggesting Jack’s wife might be playing around without Jack’s knowledge. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are two layers of subtext that enrich any piece of dialogue. Use these techniques, when appropriate, to imbue your dialogue with rich layers of meaning.

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How to Write Better Dialogue

Dialogue

Great dialogue sparkles. It imbues a script or novel with a sense of authenticity and character. It injects pace, interest, and relevance. Great dialogue draws the reader or audience into the story and holds them there, delivering meaning on various levels. In this post I discuss some of the techniques used by writers to create effective dialogue—primarily the cover-up as an aspect of subtext.

Subtext and the Cover-Up

Subtext is the meaning that lies beneath the obvious — it is the connotation that springs from the denotation offered by the surface layer. Cover-ups make us wonder what and why information is being withheld, which spikes our interest. Cover-ups in dialogue take many forms, one of which is deflection. Deflection, in turn, may come as a question, a change in subject, action that is incongruous with dialogue, a counter attack, a threat, a joke, silence. Here are some examples:

1. Answer a question with a question

“Have you ever taken money that didn’t belong to you?”
“Do you honestly believe I would ever do that?”

2. A change of subject

“Got the money I lent you?”
“I saw your wife at the supermarket today…talking to some young buck.”

3. Action that is incongruous with dialogue

He slapped her hard across the mouth so that the blood ran down her chin.
“I so love the taste of blood in the morning!” she responded.

4. Counter attack

“You seem nervous.”
“So do you.”

5. A threat

“I’m sorry honey. Don’t wait up for me tonight. Working late at the office again.”
“Mind if I pop in and say hi, anyway?”

6. A joke

“I’m sorry Jim. I never meant to screw your girlfriend. It just happened.”
“That makes us even, then!”

7. Silence

“Are you having an affair, Matthew?”
Matthew looked at his wife for a long while but said nothing. At last he got up and fixed himself a stiff scotch.

In each case, a question or statement is deflected or defused by an unexpected response. The response itself implies deeper layers of meaning which enrich the exchange. This is the most important aspect of subtext.

Summary

Subtext is an indispensable part of dialogue and comes in many forms. The seven examples provided above illustrate some of the ways to enliven and enrich dialogue in your stories.

What is Subtext?

Subtext, in writing, refers to the treasure that lies buried below the surface of a story — its inner meaning. If the “text” is concerned with surface detail — that which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, the “subtext” carries that which is implied, hinted at, or intuited through depth, subtlety, and resonance. Subtext, in the wider sense of the word, operates across different categories such as genre, symbolism, setting, character, vocation, and dialogue, since all are able to transmit hidden or interior meaning. In this post, we shall be focusing on subtext in dialogue.

Saying One Thing and Meaning Several

In dialogue, subtext arises whenever a character lies, hides something, seduces, plots, is merely polite, or is simply unaware of the deeper implications of what is being said. The common denominator is that additional information is presented in a subtle way. Inevitably, subtext acts as a kind of foreshadowing, awaiting for that aha-moment to reveal its true meaning (usually, around a turning point). In Basic Instinct, crime writer Catherine Trumell (Sharon Stone) is interrogated by detectives about the murder of Johnny Boz, a retired rock-star. Her subtext, which targets Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), bristles with veiled threats and sexual innuendo:

NICK: What’s your new book about?
CATHERINE: A Detective. He falls for the wrong woman.

The implication is that her new book is about her and Nick.

NICK: What happens to him?
CATHERINE: She kills him.

This contains a veiled threat and a warning, but also a lure in its hint of a possible sexual liaison (“He falls for the wrong woman”). Later in the interrogation:

NICK: You like playing games, don’t you?
CATHERINE: I have a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.

Catherine not only invites Nick to engage in a-cat-and-mouse game over who killed Johnny Boz, she also engages in a kind of foreplay prior to having sex. Because the audience, like Nick, is aware of the deeper meaning in this (Catherine is already a suspect), the dialogue serves to foreshadow the pay-off in which Catherine, after having made love to Nick, reaches for the murder weapon beneath her bed, only to hesitate and make love to him again, instead. The suggestion is that Nick too will be killed when she’s had her fill of him.

Summary

Subtext in dialogue occurs when characters hide something, lie, seduce, plot, are merely being polite, or are unaware of the deeper meaning of what is being said. Its function is to create depth and resonance in the story, as well as to serve foreshadowing.

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