A creative writing exercise on subtext in dialogue – because real people don’t say what they mean.

Creative writing exercises are the writerly equivalent of doing weights at the gym
Creative writing exercises are the writerly equivalent of doing weights at the gym.

Creative writing exercises are the writerly equivalent of doing weights at the gym. An exercise focusses on a single aspect of the craft, allowing us to strengthen that skill.

Over the next two months, the PYA writers’ support group meetings will focus on subtext in dialogue. Because real people don’t say what they mean.

What is subtext in dialogue?

Subtext is hidden meaning behind the spoken words. It creates a layered, richer reading experience. It can also promote reader engagement, as they recognise the hidden emotions.

Real people don’t say what they mean

Subtext in dialogue is a strong technique to make characters seem real, and to give them emotional impact. This is because, in real life, people don’t say what they mean. And the more emotional they feel, the less likely they are to address the issue in hand and express themselves clearly. At its most skilled level, subtext may also betray subconscious motives that not even the characters themselves are fully aware of.

Polite conversation is subtext

Even in less emotional interchanges, societal conventions, good manners, and conflicting desires all conspire to prevent people saying what they really feel. Think of the horrified silence when a child drops a truth such as ‘Daddy says Mummy’s bum is big’. It’s the unsayable, and poor Daddy blabbers about ‘shapely booty, good handful, real woman…’

Example – multiple interpretations

A man hails a woman in the street. “Freya!”
She stops. “Bob. Long time, no see.”
He says, “You’ve lost weight.”

These are words, an every day exchange. But what do they really mean? What is the subtext?

She says, ‘Long time no see.’

  • Does she mean, you’re the office bore and I’ve been trying to avoid you?
  • Does she mean – you dumped me without saying anything – where the hell have you been?
  • Does she mean, I don’t want to talk to you now?
  • Does she mean, You’re an old friend and I’m glad to see you?

He says ‘you’ve lost weight’

  • Does he mean: I want to compliment you because I’m hoping to use your connections to further my career?
  • Does he mean: you look great, I want to go to bed with you?
  • Does he mean – hell, you look terrible, are you ill?
  • Is he not even really talking to Freya? Is he sending a snide message to his plum wife beside him: Freya can lose weight, why can’t you?

Unsayable: the stronger the emotion, the stronger the avoidance of the subject

The stronger the emotions involved, the more people avoid it, and the more likely there is to be subtext. An example is conversation at funerals. Consider some of the unsayable things:

  • The widow: I can’t live without him.
  • The work colleague: I don’t know why I’m here, I hated the bastard
  • The son: Oh my god, if Dad can die, I can die. It’s my turn next
  • The daughter: Why can’t I take away Mum’s pain?

Avoid the unsayable, talk about a third subject

Consider what people say to avoid the unsayable. At a real funeral, people blather about weather and traffic jams – a third subject. The skill of an author is to pick a third subject that is still relevant to the story, and enables something significant to be said.

Example: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby uses a third subject brilliantly to open his novel A Long Way Down.

At the outset of the book, failing TV actor Martin Sharp sits on the edge of the roof of a tower block. His suicide is meticulously planned: he even brought a stepladder in order to climb over the building’s parapet. He is joined on the roof by single mum Maureen, who also intends suicide, but didn’t foresee the problem of climbing the parapet. So, she asks to borrow his stepladder.

In the ensuing conversation, Martin politely offers use of his ladder. Maureen, equally politely, suggests she should wait until… Well, you know. He is uncomfortable at the idea of being watched. She suggests she waits ‘over there’. He’s still uncomfortable, and cracks a joke. She doesn’t laugh.

The upshot is that, with an audience, Martin can’t throw himself off the roof, so they begin to argue about who goes first. The ladder becomes the ‘third subject’, diverting from the immensity of two people planning to fling themselves into oblivion.

Subtext flows from character

Subtext flows from character. In Hornby’s novel, the actor reflexively makes a joke – and evaluates its reception – even when he’s planning to kill himself.

A character’s personality, back story, wants, needs and subconscious desires are all in the subtext. Knowledge of all these things informs the author of a character’s true intents – and of suitable ‘third subjects’ that he or she may talk about.

Deep intent: the conflict of conscious and unconscious desires

A character’s true intents may not even be acknowledged by the character. We all know our conscious desires, but a character may not know – or actively suppress – unconscious desires. Colloquially, these are the ‘lies we tell ourselves’. For instance, in Hornby’s story, Martin tells himself he’s going to jump from the tower block. But actually, he doesn’t.

To write good subtext, the author must understand this deep intent of the character, as well as what he kids himself about. Often, as in Hornby’s story, these intents, desires, and beliefs about himself, are in conflict.

Subtext flows from deep intent

As it’s unfashionable for an omniscient author to explain that the man was deceiving himself, authors are expected to SHOW the characters’ true feelings. When these cannot be expressed in conscious words, they escape in subconscious actions, tone of voice and body language.

Ambivalent characters

You might want your reader to understand your character’s deep intent as the dialogue develops. Or, you might deliberately choose to to let the reader’s understanding remain ambivalent, as in thrillers, in order that suspicion may fall upon a character.

Writing subtext

Good subtext speaks direct to the reader’s subconscious. Writing subtext is difficult. It’s hard to write it at the first draft. It requires deep thought, revision, and cuts – especially when characters are ambivalent or complex.

Tips and tricks for writing subtext

1. Don’t expect to do it at the first draft. (I know we do this in our PYA workshops, but hey.)

2. Think hard:

Think about the ‘third subject’: the distraction that the speakers use to cover their true feelings. Choose something that illuminates character and/or setting: a chef wields his meat tenderiser; a granny focusses on her knitting. Ideally, choose something with metaphorical or parallel meaning. For example, in Nick Hornby’s story, two people planning to kill themselves talk about a ladder. Emotionally, they’re at rock bottom. The ladder symbolises that the story will move them up.

Think about:

  • What is the character REALLY aiming at in this exchange? Does he understand himself, or are his conscious desires in conflict with his subconscious?
  • What is the character trying to HIDE? How do their words CONCEAL their actions?
  • What’s at stake? Is it life/death? Teacher discovering the kid’s not done his homework? Potential lovers trying to discover if their feelings are reciprocated?
  • How do actions REVEAL the character’s true feelings? Compare what they SAY to what they DO.
  • Set up: What back story does the reader need to know?
  • Consider ‘silent dialogue’, a wordless exchange. Body language is king here. Wordless responses include: pauses ;’erms/umms’;gestures; and movement to some diversionary task.
  • Lies: What lies will your character tell? There are blatant, obvious lies. And there are more subtle lies, lies in which the character lies to himself.
  • What is the UNSAYABLE here? The bigger the emotion, the harder it is to talk about.
  • What is in the characters’ subconscious? There could be forces driving character action here that even the characters have not consciously acknowledged. For instance, the career woman whose ticking ‘baby clock’ causes her to go in for a drunken one night stand.
  • At every turn of the exchange, each character makes a choice. They choose what to say: truth, lie, diversion, third subject. The listening character also makes a choice: do they accept what the other person says? How will they respond?
  • Once you’re written your dialogue, cut, cut, CUT. The bigger the emotion, the fewer words people say. Don’t worry about fully formed sentences. Use broken sentences, single words. Pare it to the minimum.

3. Write a draft in which your characters say what they truly feel and want. Discover their intents, motivations and desires.

4 Consider what each character must hide.

5 Rewrite the draft, with each character hiding what they must hide. Use lies, diversion, avoidance, silence – whatever it takes. Add body language.

6 Consider your ‘third subject’. Will it be a metaphor, like the ladder? Or something in the characters’ world that you want readers to see but not see – a clue in a detective story, perhaps? Or a distraction that’s indicative of character – a pet, a work colleague, something bright and shiny in a shop window?

7 Rewrite the draft again. Add more body language.

8 Rewrite the draft. Think about pauses in this highly charged, broken exchange.

8 Rewrite it again, cut.

9 Edit, cut. Cut some more.

Exercise for today

For today’s exercise, either:

  • Write a short exchange between two characters from your own work in progress, avoiding the issue by talking about a ‘third subject’.
  • OR: Write a conversation between two characters in a setting where people struggle to speak. Try mourners at a funeral, or potential lovers who have not yet reached what Jane Austen termed ‘an understanding’.
  • OR: pick up Bob and Freya from the example above. Write the scene making the subtext apparent.

Remember, subtext is HARD. Don’t expect too much in the first draft.

Further reading:

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

Dialogue, the art of verbal action for page, stage and screen, by Robert McKee

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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