Subtext: it goes without saying

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Dialogue

Subtext is one technique I consider more advanced in dialogue and storytelling. The basic definition is an element that carries a second level of meaning. A symbol might be considered a type of subtext.

In dialogue, it’s when a character says one thing, but the reader can infer another layer of meaning. Maybe the character doth protest too much; maybe his gestures show her anger despite his reassurances that he’s okay; maybe the reader knows this character acts like he’s the one when she’s with her friends, but plays hard to get when he’s around.

As editor Alicia Rasley puts it (emphasis mine):

Subtext is like a gift to the astute reader, an additional layer of meaning implied by the text but not accessible without a bit of thinking. And it gives a chance for the writer to deepen the theme and characters in a subversive way, inviting the reader to interact and thus become more involved in the story. . .

Subtext exists all the time in real life, and so to do justice to our characters, we can create the opportunity for the reader to find shadings of deeper meaning in our stories.

You’re probably already doing this- I think subtext is nearly inevitable once you accept that characters have inner lives.

So, how can we use subtext in our dialogue? A few ideas:

  • Use the character’s body language to clue the reader in that something’s off. Some little tell in the character’s behavior shows us that he or she is shifty and untrustworthy when reporting a fact, covering insecurity when bragging, aggressive when saying something passive.
  • Use dramatic irony. The readers saw the hero pacing as he worked up his fragile ego to call the heroine. When we switch to her POV for the call itself, she doesn’t know that his cockiness (a major turn off for her) is all for show. This can also be applied on a “macro level,” as Alicia Rasley calls it. She cites the example of Casablanca being set just before Pearl Harbor. The audience knows the events that are coming though the characters don’t, and that adds another layer of meaning for the reader.
  • Dance around a topic. Make it clear there’s something the characters aren’t saying or won’t think about.
  • Carefully craft the dialogue. (I know: duh. Easier said than done.) Choose words or build phrases that can carry more weight. Split hairs. Have other characters misinterpret, seeing only through their own particular filter.

Alicia’s article on subtext goes in depth on these and other ways to craft more subtext into your dialogue and your story.

What do you think? How else do you convey another level of meaning in dialogue?

Photo by Ludovic Hirlimann

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3 thoughts on “Subtext: it goes without saying”

  1. Hmm. You’ve covered everything I can think of. I’ll watch this space to see if anyone else has good ideas.

    Love this post! It took me ages to figure out what subtext was — and I’d been using it in my writing all along. (Not much, and not well, but that’s another story.)

  2. Excellent post. Subtext is important and in one sense can be used as a red herring for a mystery/suspense novel–I did a bit of that in my book, Wrong Number. I also think that subtext can be a great tool for humor in those types of books. Almost like you’re clueing in the reader to an inside joke.

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