By Debbie Burke
Back in the 1990s, author/editor Karen Lin and I met at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. We hit it off immediately and have remained good friends even though we rarely see each other except via Zoom.
Karen is the author of American Moon, a moving saga about the immigration of her Chinese in-laws, and MuShu Mac & Cheese, a humorous mash-up of Julia Child and My Big Fat Chinese Wedding.
She also teaches writing online, at conferences, and even on cruise ships–a tough gig but somebody’s gotta do it!
The following is an excerpt from a two-week class on Subtext that Karen will teach beginning April 10th through Scribophile. Membership to the huge online critique group is free.
Subtext is an advanced technique that adds depth and resonance to writing. I invited Karen to share her excellent tips with TKZ.
Subtext in Dialogue /Body Language — Gestures/Posture/Mannerisms/Actions/Facial Expressions
If dialogue is about what the dialogue is about, you’re in trouble.
People don’t always say what they mean outright. In fact sometimes the words are in direct opposition to body language. Body language includes gestures, facial expressions, posture, mannerisms, and actions that communicate without words.
Subtext can come in the form of understatement, sarcasm, or a witty punchline, a result, often, of backloading your sentence. That means putting the most powerful word at the end of the sentence, or sentence at the end of a paragraph, or paragraph at the end of a chapter. Backloading is powerful for narrative also. It makes your words lean forward into the next thing. It teases and says to the reader, “Come along with me on this adventure.”
I mentioned punchlines; I should also warn you about them. If they aren’t really great and cleverly pulled off, they can fall flat.
Comedy is all about subtext turned inside out. A joke says what we’re all thinking. Comedic details are the key. Outlandish adjectives and sarcastic barbs right in the middle of a monologue are fun examples.
Dialogue can mask the character’s desires and necessities, but it still leaves clues about what is really meant behind the words. Sarcasm, Freudian slips, unexpected words, and irony are all techniques that can be used to hint at the truth.
Let’s look at an example of emotionally charged dialogue in the movie Carol, Cate Blanchett’s character doesn’t come right out and ask if Therese finds her pretty.
Carol asks, “Were those pictures of me you were taking at the tree lot?” (Subtext: “You find me beautiful?”)
Therese replies, “Sorry, I should have asked.” (Subtext: “Is it OK for me to be attracted to you?”)
Carol says, “Don’t apologize,” (Subtext: “You don’t need to ask for permission to be attracted to me, even though I’m a woman”)
On the surface it is a conversation about photos. It is actually about their sexual desire for each other. The secondary message doesn’t tell it directly.
Use vernacular to tell us about a person. Is he educated? Irish? a braggart?
The most common flaw I see in dialogue is when the characters speak in robotic information-load rather than how real people talk. It suggests the reader wouldn’t get it otherwise. Trust your reader. The challenge is to NOT write “on-the-nose” dialogue, while still revealing important information to the audience. Resist spelling everything out in an expository way. You encourage the readers to come to you BECAUSE you are giving them credit.
For the perfect lesson on subtext in dialogue watch Annie Hall, written by Woody Allen. As Annie and Alvie talk, the subtext in their discussion is written on the screen with subtitles. Their verbal discussion is about photography. In the subtext she’s wondering if she’s smart enough for him. He’s wondering if he’s too shallow. She wonders if he’s a shmuck like other men. He wonders what she looks like naked.
Woody Allen teaches us that characters can talk about anything as long as the true message comes across, as long as the scene accomplishes its purpose. First understand the intention of the scene, then write the dialogue with rich subtext to fulfill that need.
In a real conversation and excellent dialogue (with no subtitles for comic effect) ideas are not spelled out directly, every thought, every feeling stated. Good dialogue reveals without doing that.
Does a person’s private life and public life look the same? Will they say the opposite of what they mean to disguise who they are?
Dialogue was never intended to replicate real speech. It represents attitudes and what the character wants, an outpouring of secrets the character wishes not to disclose.
If you want to study good dialogue, study successful plays. Imagine a middle-aged couple arguing over whether to outfit their new bedroom with two single beds or their old double bed. On the surface the fight is over beds. But in subtext, they reveal their whole marriage, facing what has happened to their lives and love over so many years.
Here are two bits of dialogue. This conversation is between two wealthy friends, one unsure about his future. Which version draws you in as a reader? Which one spells out too much, unsubtly, doing all the work for the reader?
Jack lined up another shot as Kyle looked on. “Dad wants me to take over his backup generator company.”
Vincent smirked as Jack’s ball spun down into the billiards pocket. “So? What’s the problem?”
“Everything! I know he wants to keep it all in the family but I just graduated from CU with honors. I want to make my way in the world on my own.”
Now read this version:
Vincent looked on as Jack pummeled a ball into the pocket. ”Something bothering you, man?”
“Four years gone.” Jack frowned. “And for what? Okay, it was fun, but…”
“At least Daddy’ll give you a nice office.”
The reader must infer information in the second version. In the first version the writer outright states it upfront in an on-the-nose way. It can be a tough skill to master. When reading a good quality novel, notice how a character is revealed through dialogue and how short and sharp most conversations are.
As suggested by our parents and kindergarten teachers, often actions speak louder than words. Experiment with this. Don’t state your point.
In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities a character volunteers to be beheaded. That is how he says “I love you.” Much more powerful, right?
Some things go without saying. They are inferred rather than spoken. Don’t discount the powerful sound of silence.
That brings us to the subject of body language. Just as in real life, one can say a lot through their gestures, posture, actions, facial expressions, and mannerisms. Think of it as coded language.
These are also fun ways to create dynamic dialogue tags. You could use a plain simple tag:
“You don’t really care about my headache,” she said.
Or you could try:
“You don’t really care about my headache.” She turned, tempted to throw a few pieces of fine china at him.
In Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t say, “Watch your back. I’m still a threat to you.” Instead he says, “I’ll be back.” (The subtext: remember I’m a threat as you learned from my previous actions and dialogue) These three words add tension, raise questions about the future, and make the audience hungry for more, especially into the sequel. You want to do that with your novel, especially if you are writing a series.
The dialogue is snappy and indirect. If it had been on-the-nose, it wouldn’t be as powerful. It would have spit the meaning at the audience rather than engaging them. “I’ll be back” stayed one step away from the actual meaning.
In The Great Gatsby we have this slice of dialogue:
“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”
Is this really about clothes? No. It is about wealth.
A 4th grade boy trudges his way to the front of the room and slips his paper onto Ms. Garcia’s desk.
After looking through two pages, she asks, “Are you sure you want to turn this in?”
What’s the subtext? What’s the trudging mean? What does the teacher’s dialogue mean?
Karen, thanks for guesting and for giving TKZ an advance peek!
TKZers: Do you use subtext in your writing? How do you avoid on-the-nose dialogue?
Thanks for this, Debbie and Karen. A wealth of keeper information.
Thanks Terry! Subtext is something that comes naturally to some. For those of us whose nature is to get someone to understand us quickly, it is unnatural in a first draft. We want our audience to come to us so they are engaged. For me, it’s helpful to remember to trust my reader to get it.
Terry, I also found Karen’s info really helpful. I’m using the tips while rewriting my WIP.
I’m editing my WIP and this hit the bullseye.
Perfect timing for me, too, Judy.
Great!!!!! It’s a bit tricky to learn subtext strategies, but once we get it, it comes more naturally. Like riding a bike!
Thanks, Debbie and Karen. Great points and examples.
I do try to use subtext in my writing, especially with action beats. And avoidance of on-the-nose dialogue? I listen and learn from how my wife and I communicate. How’s that for subtext?
Non-verbal communication looms large in long-term relationships. Great example, Steve.
Yes indeed!!!! You know how we finish off each other’s sentences? Wouldn’t it be funny to have an entire scene with just two people communicating through body anguage?!!
Spousal conversations are fertile ground for subtext to blossom, eh?
Yes, whole scene only body language would be fun!
Ha! I should start listening to my husband’s surface and subtext conversation with that intention. Interestingly…I believe sometimes it’s a bit different because my husband was born and raised in Taiwan. He uses some gestures we don’t usually use here.
Welcome, Karen. This is terrific information. With dialogue, I try to reflect a character’s emotions and concerns indirectly in the conversation. Your techniques will help me improve, especially since dialogue is something I want to crackle in my fiction. It’s one of my favorite things to write, too. I love dynamic dialogue tags–you provided some useful examples.
Thank you. Debbie, thanks as well for inviting Karen today.
Crackling dialogue brings a story to life. It’s my favorite part of writing, too. Thanks, Dale.
Hmmm. I never thought of determining what part of writing is my favorite. If action… sex maybe. No that is about all of it,
narrative, communication and action… also subtext… now for the homework… 🙂
I’m glad it was helpful Dale. Also thank you to Debbie for inviting me!
Welcome, Karen. And thanks, Debbie, for inviting Karen.
Such great information here. I’m going to spend some time in my WIP with subtext in mind. Thanks!
Great! Glad to hear it will help!
Karen’s a great teacher and editor!
Subtext might just be the thing that was missing from that last chapter I was struggling with.
Sometimes it makes all the difference.
Azali, like spice in cooking. You don’t always know what’s missing until you add the perfect accent.
Love that comparison!
Like others, this is great timing as I finish edits. Thanks for coming Karen! And Debbie for bringing her!
Glad it came at a good time. Once you’ve combed through …. it will likely come more naturally the next time first draft, anything that makes that first step easier…
Perfect timing for a lot of us, Patricia.
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