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Friday, May 8, 2015

Tip #4 for Fiction Writers: How to Write Great Dialogue through Subtext

Tip #4  How to write great dialogue through subtext

                                                                                                                By Peter Gilboy           

The son finally returns home. He's been away at war.
He opens the door. His father is at the breakfast table.

      Father: I thought you were dead.
          Son: I was in a POW camp.
      Father: Why didn't you escape?

Just three lines from the film Maria’s Lovers and we know the heart of this father-son relationship—that the son is never good enough.

Did the words say that? No.

But it’s clear anyway.

That’s subtext. That’s what makes a good dialogue even better.

·       A good story is never about what the story is about. Or let me say that differently: A good story is never about what it’s about on the surface.

In this film, Maria’s Lovers, a lesser writer might have used flashbacks to show the father was disappointed in the son for not measuring up—at a ballgame, when getting grades back, etc.  

But subtext said it better. In this case it laid their relationship bare in just three lines. Now the writer can get on with the plot—what’s going to happen in the story.

·       Subtext is like an iceberg. The reader sees only the “top” of what is said, but is made aware of the hidden mass below which isn’t said.
   John: I’m sending you something.
  Stella: Does it smell nice?
   John: No, but it’s sparkly.
  Stella: Does it come with a receipt? 

That’s from The Italian Job. Stella didn’t say—I know you’re a thief. You probably stole it? I don’t trust you. I’m exasperated with the work you do.  But we get the meaning anyway.

·       Subtext hints while straight-text tells. And because it hints, it engages the reader because the reader knows that something is hidden. The reader is let in on the secret. Have you heard this one?

“Not tonight, honey. I’m tired.”

Here are three famous lines that reach far beyond the words themselves.

“What if this is as good as it gets?”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

In the last line Vito Corleone is really saying that he’s in control and that he get what he wants. The reader feels the tension. His or her mind races forward to all sorts of possibilities. Bribe the guy? Maim him? Yikes, kill him? 

No, it’s worse. It’s going to be a dead horse in the guy’s bed. But the writer made us wait for it. And we knew it was going to be big. The subtext added tension. It added depth to the story and the character.

What happens when the CIA gets inside your mind?
·       People don’t say what they mean.

In some cases the subtext might not reveal its true meaning right away, but it will as the plot develops. Take, for example, a husband who is growing softer and fatter by the day. He’s gained 40 pounds. At dinner he asks for another helping of turkey and potatoes.

Wife: “Are you sure you want more?”

Lots of possible subtexts here: Maybe she’s unwilling to confront him for the sake of the marriage. Maybe she’s physically afraid of him. Maybe she’s really saying that she wants her attractive lover back. We’ll have to read further.

·       Subtext can also be through action, or inaction.

If a boy pulls a girls hair, does it mean he doesn’t like her?

If at a party, a man glances at a woman’s cleavage and then approaches her, what is he really saying?

·       Often the subtext depends on the context:

If Francis Underwood, the character in House of Cards, tells you, “Don’t worry, you can count on me,” it means something very different than if your mother says it.

And this:
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up in a minivan.
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up in a red BMW
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up on a motorcycle.

There’s only one difference between the above sentences. And in each sentences we assume something different about the blond. That’s also subtext.

·       Subtext is understood

Does Vito Corleone ever say that he loves his family? That he’s looking out for them? That he’ll do anything for them?

No. It’s already in the subtext of each scene. For him to say actually “I’ll do anything for you,” would be redundant and even absurd. The audience might actually out loud. Besides, “I’ll do anything for you” or “I love you” would add nothing to the story or to what we already know about the character.

·       The plot is what happens in the story.

·       The subtext is what’s really happening.

 Mary: "Do you love me?"
             John opens the refrigerator door. 
 John: "Of course."

·       Subtext shows conflict and reveals character without saying it.

        Son: “Why can’t I go to college?”
    Father: “You think what I do isn’t good enough?”

        Wife: Where are we going on our vacation?
Husband: We went someplace last year.

Girlfriend: “Did you kiss Betty?”
Boyfriend: “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Employer: You catch up on your work?
Employee: I’m getting there?
Employer: I hope so.

Girlfriend: “You gonna take me to the prom?”
Boyfriend: “Why is that so important?”

    Father: “How are your grades?”
                      Daughter: “Grades aren’t everything

 Nobody in the above instances answered the question. They said something else. And in saying that “something else” they revealed more about themselves than if they had answered directly.

·       Subtext is subtle. It points to a meaning without saying it.

          Art student: “Pretty cool oil painting I did, isn’t it?”
          Art teacher: “I really like the way you use red.”

The well-known writing teacher Robert McKee has said: “If your characters say what they mean, then your story is in deep sh**.”

·                 Subtext deepens our characters.

·                 Subtext deepens our stories.

Annie knows the darkest lie of all
But we already know subtext. We use it every day.
Yet when we sit down to write, it may escape us.

So, how do we learn to write in subtext? Simply listen carefully to what real people say. Maybe hang out at Starbucks, get a vente cappuccino or whatever and find a comfortable chair and eavesdrop on conversations. Or eavesdrop at the checkout stand. Or in your kitchen. Best of all, we should listen to how we ourselves speak.

Okay, but how do we write it!
Write down (or think about) what the character really means: “You really gonna to marry that slob?

Then say it like people really say it: “Are you sure about him?”

Here’s a familiar dialogue:

                                             What is said                      The Subtext
Guy: “Want to come up for a drink?”    “Let’s have sex.”

Girl: “Long day. I’m really tired.”           “I’m not sure.”

Guy: “You sure?”                       “I don’t care. I’m horny.”

Girl: “Maybe another time.”                  “Don’t push it.”

                                        I'll end with this one:
   Husband: Was it good for you too?
       Wife:  I’m speechless.
                     That's subtext.


"Yes, I know Madeleine's missing.
 But I can explain that. I can explain everything

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at



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