Dialogue, as any other narrative tool, operates best when it advances more than one goal. Single-purpose narrative devices often come off flat, lacking color, or uninteresting. Screenwriters call this “on-the-nose” dialogue, and if any writers know the power of well-crafted character speech, it’s those who hang their whole project on the spoken word!
The wording of a statement can amplify or reduce the intensity of the moment:
“No, thank you, I’ll pass.”
“I really don’t like this.”
“Get that out of my sight!”
Body language and action give layers to the meaning of a simple statement:
She angled her chair to more directly face the droning television. “Sounds like fun.”
“That sounds like fun!” she said, taking the brochure.
Carefully selected descriptors, scene setting, and current conflict all serve as tools to expose the layers of meaning in an interaction.
While the tools of dialogue are many, the material for subtext comes from well-developed characters. Certainly a character’s personality and background influence what they say and how they say it in terms of voice, but it’s their conflicts that enrich what they say with subtext.
Each character, especially main characters, have something they want to achieve. Real people have reasons for talking to someone, and so should characters, but these reasons become complicated by circumstance, disagreement, or conflicting goals.
For a general example, consider what a prisoner and a guard would worry about in their dialogue when making an illicit deal in a prison setting.
Prisoner: Pretend he’s in charge, and any prisoner in charge wants to stay that way. Of course, since he’s a prisoner still, he would be stupid to openly show in front of other guards that he has this guard under his influence. How he shows this would depend on what he has that the guard wants. This prisoner would also have a place in the prison culture, and what he does and says with this guard in public will serve to raise or lower his status in the population.
Guard: As a guard, he shouldn’t be dealing illegally with a prisoner under any circumstances. He would not want any of this to be known to his fellow guards, the prisoner population, or his bosses. But, if he needs something from the prisoner, then he’d still have to communicate his requests and speak about the terms of their agreement.
On top of all of this, the story must demand these two converse, so that goal must be achieved as well. Skillfully accomplished dialogue exploits these concerns in all their complexity in such a natural way that information is clear even when the situation demands it not be spoken directly.
Subtext in dialogue is most often found in long narrative as in novels, movies, and TV series. Long story forms allow abundant time to develop the layers of conflict within all the characters involved, making the language natural, the conflicts engaging, and the characters complex. Finding and illustrating an example of this takes time, but for an excellent one, check out the Subtext in Dialogue post over at AdvancedFictionWriting.com. More illustrative examples can be found in the subtext section of WhatAScript.com’s post series on movie dialogue.
Learning to use any specific technique requires practice and revision. One shouldn’t expect to rattle off incredible, layered dialogue in the first draft. Incorporating subtext is largely an exercise for the revision period, and knowing when it’s been polished to just the right point requires the help of others. This is especially true for those just starting with subtext.
Since character conflicts and desires drive what is said and how it’s spoken, one exercise to enhance dialogue requires the writer to list each character’s concerns, desires, worries, and relationships regarding the other characters in the scene. This can get lengthy, but focus on what the speaking character wants the others to think vs. what they don’t want anyone to know. This exercise encourages a heightened awareness of internal character conflict.
For more direct practice with subtext, write a scene in which characters are not allowed to mention something that is very important. Stick with two characters at first, as that turns the focus of the exercise to the dialogue and less to the situation. The situation could be anything from admitting to a cultural taboo to neither character wanting to pay the dinner bill. Practice with a variety of situations and, more importantly, have someone read it and get feedback.
One classic example of a story using just such a prompt is Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. If you have never read it before, read it and then reference some story guide to see what was actually going on. His subtext is so full that people often read a variety of meanings in the same dialogue.