Here’s a scene from Getting Into Character that I wrote as an example of subtexting. (If you’ve already read GIC, I hope that re-reading this excerpt will reinforce to you the value of this technique.) In order to show how powerful subtexting can be, I wrote the scene as if it were the opening scene of a book. Meaning, of course, that readers wouldn’t know the two characters at all, or anything of their history. Yet right away, on the very first page, the subtexting would be so strong that there would be no doubt of the underlying messages these two characters were giving each other.
To make an even stronger example of subtexting, I chose only five words of dialogue, which on their surface sound like light nothingspeak. They are:
Let’s see how subtexting changes the meaning of those innocuous words.
(Legal stuff: Excerpt from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors, published by John Wiley & Sons, copyright Brandilyn Collins.)
At last, silence. Not even a creak from the padded rocking chair. She was too exhausted to push.
Early morning light filtered through the checkered curtains, patterning the floor at Missy Danton’s feet. Her newborn nursed in her arms, sighing in contentment with each swallow. For hours, Missy had despaired of this moment ever arriving. The baby had squalled all night, filling her with fear at the thought of waking her husband.
Missy smoothed a fingertip over the baby’s perfect cheek. How could Franklin still treat her so badly after she’d given him such a beautiful son? She’d been so sure a baby would change things. But the pain in her left shoulder, where he’d punched her twice yesterday, baby in her arms, screamed the bitter truth.
The nursery door pushed open. Missy raised dull eyes to watch Franklin’s head appear, hair matted from sleep. What she would give for the slightest bit of compassion.
“Morning.” Her voice was little more than a croak.
He slouched in the doorway, dismissive eyes flicking over her face, the baby. Languidly, then, he stretched, yawning with exaggeration. “Morning.”
Resentment rose like hot acid within Missy. She pressed her lips together, fingers tensing under the baby’s blanket. “Sleep well?” Biting with sarcasm, the words slipped from her lips of their own accord. The moment they were out, she wanted them back.
Franklin drew to his full height, eyes narrowing. His head tilted, and Missy could see the telltale vein on his neck begin to throb. She braced herself, drawing her baby closer. Franklin’s mouth opened in a smirk, his chin jutting. “Yeah,” he challenged, goading, daring her to continue in such foolishness.
Fresh, nauseating fear blanketed Missy’s anger. She now had more than herself to protect.
Missy lowered her eyes.
I’ve been telling you that subtexted dialogue occurs when (1) the speaker doesn’t want to say what he’s thinking, or (2) the speaker doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking because the other person already knows it. I’ve given you examples of #1 in the past couple of days. This scene between Missy and Franklin is an example of #2.
This couple obviously has a history of marital abuse. Franklin has used his fists to beat Missy into submission. He speaks, she obeys. Sometimes maybe even when she does obey, she gets hit. That’s the way their married life has gone. As a result, they don’t need to speak the words of abuse and submission to each other.
Here’s the subtexted meaning of each line of dialogue that I envisioned when I wrote the scene:
“Morning.” Look at me just once with compassion, Franklin. I’ve been up all night with the son I’ve given you, and I’m exhausted.
“Morning.” Yeah, what do I care? That’s your place, watching the kid while I get my eight hours.
“Sleep well?” I’m sick of the way you treat me. You make me furious. How can you be so selfish, sleeping all night while I was having so much trouble?
“Yeah.” You keep it up, Missy, you’ll be sorry. A baby in your arms ain’t gonna keep me from hitting you.
There’s actually one more piece of this conversation, completely unspoken:
Missy lowered her eyes. Franklin, I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me. Please don’t hit me. Please don’t hurt my baby.
Take a minute and relook at the scene, substituting the subtexted dialogue with its actual meaning. If the characters had spoken that way, in such WYSIWYG terms, can you see how much weaker the scene would have been? I get that “shallow characterizing feeling” when I read the scene with WYSIWYG dialogue. The conversation hits me as false, because I know instinctively that these two characters wouldn’t speak to each other so openly.
And that is why subtexting is so important in our novels. Our stories must reflect real life, and in real life, subtexting is a common occurrence. Your readers instinctively understand this. When they read WYSIWYG dialogue that should be subtexted, they'll know it's wrong. They may not be able to articulate why it hits them as wrong and weak, but the dialogue will fail to move them.
Over the weekend, as you talk to folks and overhear conversations, as you read or watch TV/movies, I challenge you to be alert for subtexted dialogue. As you hear subtexting, search for the answer to this question: If the underlying meaning isn’t in the words being spoken, where is it? How are you picking up on it?
Read Part 4