Writing Dialogue Subtext

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad

Dialogue subtext in Breaking Bad



Dialogue subtext, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning lurking beneath the obvious.

Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo. It is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

There are many techniques for generating subtext. Here are two more:

Dialogue subtext: the lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. Breaking Bad’s Walter White’s verbal interactions with Jesse are fraught with lies, denials, and fudges as he tries to keep Jesse under his control.

A lie generates dialogue subtext by creating a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, and the like.

So, when one character asks 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 a lie is involved because the answer is evasive—-it fails to answer the question directly, parrying instead, with another question.

Dialogue subtext: manipulation

Another useful source of subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a 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 manipulates Jack into suspecting that Jack’s wife might be playing around. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.


Lying and manipulating are common generators of dialogue subtext. Use them to add depth and complexity to your characters’ interactions.


2 thoughts on “Writing Dialogue Subtext

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Interesting post. What your actually implying is that lying and manipulation makes for the most interesting characters. In The multi awards winning drama the Americans the two anti heroes ( Philip and Elizabeth) are by far the most interesting characters because of their web of lies they tell there children. Their children who are both born and raised American have no idea that there parents are actually soviet spies. Phillip and Elizabeth live secret lives out of fear for the Soviet Union. Thus that is why they do unspeakable misdeeds in order to protect their family – the reward will be to see how it all explodes in their faces.

    Also in The Cleveland show Donna grows up hating her absent mother for being a lady of the night . Her uncle recognizes that she needs a positive female role modal and takes it pone himself by faking his death and posing himself as his widow. Thus Auntie Marla is born and the payoff will depend on Donna’s husband making the discovery that his wife’s aunt is actually her dead uncle.

    In short : For a rewarding payoff – lie , lie and lie some more.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *