Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Do you know that lots of times when people talk, they don't say what they mean? Their words are on one level, and the meaning lies underneath. The meaning may not have much at all to do with the spoken words. This is called subtexted dialogue.

It's a common error for fledgling writers (and, unfortunately, sometimes not so fledgling) to write what I call WYSIWYG dialogue--What You See Is What You Get. All meaning is right on the surface. Everything that's meant is actually said. WYSIWYG dialogue that should be subtexted won't seem well written. It'll sound off, although the reader won't know exactly why.

In Getting Into Character I use this example: Say two women, Jane and Mary, are volunteering for some all-day job at the church. After a time of working together, they get into a bit of a snit, disagreeing about the way something should be done. Jane makes a comment without thinking, and hurts Mary's feelings. They work for the next hour in uncomfortable silence. Meanwhile, Jane feels embarrassed about what she's done and wants to make amends. At the end of their work, Jane says, "Want to go get a coffee? I'm buying."

But getting a coffee isn't really the main thing Jane wants, is it? What she's trying to do is make amends. If we were to write what she's really saying, it would look more like: "I'm really sorry I said what I did. I feel embarrassed about it. Would you let me buy you a coffee to make it up to you?"

Now the interesting thing about this subtext is that Mary will immediately understand Jane's underlying meaning. But she won't want to come out and say that. So she'll respond within the same subtext. She might say, "Yeah, thanks. That would be great."

Actual meaning: "I can see you feel bad, and I accept your apology."

Or she could say, rather curtly, "No thanks. I don't have time."

Meaning: "I'm still royally ticked at you and am not ready to accept an apology. And if you're embarrassed about what you said--good! You should be."

Now, most WYSIWYG dialogue that should be subtexted isn't written as poorly as the meanings above. But it can still sound stilted and wrong.

Of course, some dialogue should be WYSIWYG. The trick is knowing when to subtext.

People (and characters) have two general reasons for not saying what they mean. (1) They don't want to admit what they're thinking, or (2) They don't need to say what they're thinking because the other person already knows it. The "coffee" conversation above is an example of #1--Jane doesn't want to openly apologize because she's embarrassed about the incident and doesn't want to bring it up.

Whether the concept of subtexting is new to you or not, you may not realize just how much this kind of dialogue occurs in real life. We're so used to hearing it, we don't even think about it. Because it's common to real life, we need to understand it and use it in our novels in order to make our dialogue sound natural and have emotional depth.

Before we go further and discuss how and when to write subtexted dialogue, I encourage you to pay close attention today to the conversations you take part in or overhear. How many times do you catch yourself saying one thing when the intent of your conversation is something different? If you start paying attention to these conversations in real life, you'll be better prepared to write subtexted dialogue when your scene calls for it.

More tomorrow. Questions/comments/feedback?

Read Part 2


Unknown said...

I just had this problem on a chapter I wrote last night. How much do we want to lead the reader? For example. A character tells a lie during a conversation. Do I write:

"Pat was with me when her husband was killed." Marty's eyes flicked momentarily away from Megans.

or do I continue on with:

Megan watched his face, doubting the alibi.

Okay, now that I asked the question, I think I know the answer, but go ahead anyway.

Dineen A. Miller said...

I saw one of the best examples of subtext in the movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith. The two main characters, played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, have figured out who each other are during a crossing of paths in which they almost kill each other. That evening he comes home like usual and she has dinner ready.

She says, "I missed you today."
He knits his brows slightly and says, "I missed you too."

It took me a second, then it hit me. I rolled! My mom was with me and burst out laughing at the same time. The rest of the theater was quiet, but I've heard others who saw it say the whole theater burst out laughing at this point.

I loved the subtlety of it. Totally awesome!

Camy Tang said...

Love that example, Dineen.

Brandilyn, I love how you explain subtexting. It makes it completely understandable for me.

Ron, how about a compromise?

"Pat was with me when her husband was killed." Marty's eyes flicked momentarily away from Megans.

Megan stared at him a long moment, then turned away {or continue story}.


Grady Houger said...

Great topic, I look forward to analyzing my writing for such mistakes now!
Glad to see the term WYSIWUG, we computer geeks use that term a lot. For further obscufation you can type wissywig as we pronounce the word.

A possible topic for sometime when you need one: I just realized today (due to being in a linguistics & Bible translation seminar) that my lack of grammar knowledge may be hindering my fiction pursuits. I can pick out nouns and verbs but that's about it, I wish I had cared back when I was 10. I can write because I've read a lot, how much help would it be to know 'the rules'?

In closing; Brink of Death was a good way to stay up until 3:00am. 