Spruce Up Dialogue with Subtext

Masters of dialogue compel the reader to keep reading, pulling the truth just out of their reach, like a carrot on a stick. Then surprise the reader: the carrot turns into a pickle. In other words, engaging dialogue that leaves us questioning creates expectations. And that creates suspense.

When characters always speak their mind exactly, whether through internal or external dialogue, that’s called “on the nose” dialogue. And it’s dull. Predictable even. Not suspenseful.

As Robert McKee says in his screenwriting book, Story, “The text cannot be about what the text is about.”

Subtext is the path of most resistance. This is dialogue that refuses to spill the beans, keeps your reader guessing as to what’s actually being said, keeps them engaged. When done well, it’s secretive, but sexy.

When characters are not saying what they really mean, but their words allude to something altogether different, that’s subtext. Like saying “Lovely day” to your boss, who terrifies you, when what you really mean is “Please don’t fire me.” Subtext is the meaning behind the message. The code that your reader has to break to feel not just engaged, but included in the story.

Two characters may not ever say they are in love with each other. That would be too direct, too everyday. Too dull. And cliché, frankly. It’s been said over and over and over… Instead, they may converse in code. Examples:

1) In the Princess Bride, the farm boy, Westley, says to Princess Buttercup “As you wish” to say "I love you." This the code that he later speaks to reveal his identity, for she’d thought he’d been killed years earlier.

2) Likewise, Lauren Bacall’s character, Marie, in To Have and Have Not, tells Humphrey Bogart’s character, Harry, “You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your two lips together and blow.”

Can you guess what she’s talking about? This, of course, was in a heavily-censored movie era, when the explicit discussion of sex was not allowed. And why change that? Talking explicitly about sex is almost always less interesting to a reader (excepting erotica, of course).

Subtext is about carefully crafted subtlety, and that’s just sexy.

Dialogue Sample for a First Meeting of Characters

This scene comes from one my students in my current dialogue class... my comments at end of post...

"Is this seat free?" his clipped British accent caught her attention. He motioned to the seat directly across from her.

"I'm sure it's not free. It's not mine, but it could probably be had for the price of fries," Georgia muttered.

This was really not what she had envisioned when she hid in the McDonalds. She hardly felt or looked her best. Bad boy laughed, and sat across from her.

"Your McDonald's chips are my weakness. Married?" he asked her.

It did not seem like the type to care. Georgia looked over to him thinking this was probably the oddest pickup she had ever had. Maybe she had gotten lucky and this one truly did not know who her family was and was actually interested in her. It would be a first.

"Not this week," she told him hesitantly. She still was unsure of his angle.

"American citizen?"

"Why and who wants to know?"

"Listen love I'm in a bit of a pickle. Seems like I gotten me a green card problem and I need to find me an American wife". He picked up her hand and looked deeply into her eyes.

"Sorry, I'm Chinese." So much for someone being interested in her as person.

"Oh I get it that’s your cheeky American sense of humor. Don’t you know who I am?" He seemed incredulous.

"Sorry, I have no idea who you are." She pressed her lips together and shook her head.

"I can offer you money. Lots of money, more money than you could ever use, love."

Wow, that probably would have worked on most. Poor Bad Boy had found the one person in the world that could have laughed at that.

"You just have to sign a pre-nuptial and stay married for 5 years. In that time I will give you two million up front and five hundred thousand for every year we stay married. For an additional five years after that, a further hundred thousand a year." Bad Boy had the naiveté to look smug.

"Very generous," Georgia said. She could wipe her nose with that much money and still not even dent what she was worth. "So who are you?"

"Miles Apocalypse. Of the Apocalypse Traders."

"How unfortunate. That can't be your real name."

"You have really never heard of the Apocalypse Traders?"

"I could Google you if it made you feel any better." Her father had always loved that saying considering he owned a large chunk of Google. "Is Miles at least your real first name?" Oddly she really did want to know.

He smiled. "Kozlowski, Miles Kozlowski." He extended his hand toward her.

"You thought Apocalypse was better last name than Kozlowski?"

She stood, hiding behind a big window sticker of Ronald McDonald she covertly watched the angry lawyers argue in front of her car. Miles came up behind her. He molded his muscled body against her back.

"I'm not sure if you realized this, but I am already standing in this spot." She threw him an icy smile over her shoulder.

The female character is very funny, a smart ass, very strong. Good dialogue here for her. You're clearly in her head. Some tweaks here and there would bring her words up a notch.

Mostly the tension between the two should rise. You've got to have chemistry on the first meeting of two romantic characters. And not "he smiled into her beautiful eyes" kind of chemistry. Here you have the makings of verbal jousting. That would arouse our interest in seeing them pair up.

Him, not as much. The accent/brit talk is fine, but the timing and lead up to his proposal seems sudden. You need to get in his shoes a little more, let him seduce us as he ramps up to the offer. Several of his lines are "throwaway" lines. They could be substituted with anything else and still not be unique. And even once his intention is made clear, he comes on way too fast with the information dump (the how and how much paragraph). Let tension build. So we are salivating to know what he's really after.

Also, you need to edit the narrative more. Besides the copyediting issues, I want you to look at lines that "tell" not show. And sometimes you point out what is obvious. This is common not just in early writers, but in early drafts, so don't feel bad about any of it. Writing is all in the REwriting. You have to massage the words to mature them. Every draft is a step forward in inches, so don't expect that you'll get it all perfect the first pass through.

Frankly, I think you have the making of a very interesting story because your characters are engaging. At this point I think you need more editing around your narrative to help you see alternative routes to conveying action, emotion, response and timing. But this is a great start.

Keep going!

Get On the Dialogue Train

Editing Dialogue class starts today...still time to sign up (ask for discount or scolarship if money is an issue -- don't let that stop you from learning!) http://www.christinefairchild.com/

Dialogue Class starts tomorow...

Tomorrow's the big day! The day I get to teach my favorite subject in fiction: dialogue (see link above). So, in the spirit of the class, let me give everyone a dialogue tip that's fun.

Cussing and swearing. Lots of editors and writers will tell you not to use foul language in your manuscripts. I say when the genre is appropriate (say a thriller or mystery), and the characters fit the bill, go for it, as long as it serves a purpose. Gratuitous swearing won't (or shouldn't, depending on the editor) hold up to editing.

We'll discuss the myriad reasons to use foul language in my dialogue class, but for now let's focus on one: CUSSING AS EXCLAMATION.

Writers shouldn't use so many exclamation points. They are overdramatic and should be used sparingly. Maybe once a chapter, if that. Don't use them as crutches to express the intensity or emotions of the character, because exclamation points are just punctuation. THEY DON'T ACTUALLY SAY ANYTHING.

Instead, make the dialogue tense, thick, toe-curling. And when you need to show how intense, use an occasional swear word to throw a last punch instead of the exclamation point.

"Damn it" is an obvious cuss word with umph that typically comes at the beginning or end of sentences. The minute it's used we can assume the character is not happily praying in church. And it's an automatic exclamation, so the extra punctuation isn't required.

So when your hero is telling the heroine, "I can't protect you if you don't listen!" try instead "I can't protect you if don't listen, damnit."

The more you let language (word choices, placement, flow) do the work, the less you need the punctuation to take up the slack. Don't believe me? When was the last time you quoted a character saying, "Go ahead, punk, make my day, exclamation point" ?????

Good luck, and happy swearing.