Add Depth to Your Dialogue with Subtext (Not Volume)

by Sera James

I recently read a short story that was perfectly nice, but a bit boring. The structure and word choice were technically quite sound, but something was still missing. This story was about the communal mourning of the death of a family member. It bored me because the characters all said what they really meant, plain as day, which lacks the intrigue many readers seek in fiction and is also misrepresentative of the human experience. In short, people don’t talk like that. They rarely if ever say what they mean with clarity and honesty–hell, most people don’t even realize how they feel with enough clarity and honesty to speak it. Subtext is what you really use when you speak, and it relies on devices such as gesture, emphasis, strategic pauses, punctuation, cadence, and word choice. It really gets down into the sentence at a molecular level in order to express itself.

A line in this story would read something like, “I know how much you miss her.” As someone who has experienced loss comparable to that of the characters in this story, I can tell you that no one has ever said this to me. People are uncomfortable with raw, blatant emotion. The most I have really been offered is, “I’m sorry,” or “I have no idea what you’re going through.” Then there would be a tense few seconds, and I’d likely respond by thanking them for their compassion, or allowing that I knew they didn’t know how I felt, and then the subject would be changed. This is as true for people you hardly know as it is for family members. A more realistic line could be, “Do you think you’re going to… do anything… with her stuff?” It eludes to the grieving process, but it’s focused on something else as the technical point. It also shows the aversion toward confronting this reality through its use of the pause/ellipses surrounding the phrase “do anything.”

In addition, it’s less interesting because plain speech is often cliché. “I miss you,” has been said so many times, in cards, in letters, on the phone, it’s almost a throw-away statement. Let me take you to the scene of a boy and a girl on the phone, separated by the entire country and college, going on three weeks now. She asks him how it is “there.” What does he say? Yes, “I miss you” is obvious, and a lot of people would really say that. But what means the same thing and is more complex and just as honest? “Cold.” Great answer. One word, so there’s a sense of finality, even fatalism, and the word “cold.” He’s cold. If she were there, he’d be warm. That’s subtext. Or “It’s been raining all day.” More interesting, just as honest, means the same thing: I’m miserable without you.

Now let’s take a look at how the scene itself can participate in the subtext. In this instance, through sound and gesture, but it could be anything that suits the moment. An appropriate song drifting by from a passing car with lowered windows.

A husband walks into the bedroom where his wife is sitting, chatting with a man on-line. The man has a profile picture in which he is wearing some kind of funny hat, or shirt, tie, et cetera, and the husband flippantly comments, “What kind of hat/shirt/tie is that?” Oddly, though, the wife becomes defensive. We don’t want to say “become defensive,” though; we want to show the way she pulls her feet down from off the computer desk, where they had previously been resting, and then, if you really want to make the scene stressful, the keyboard falls off her lap with an abrasive clatter. While she’s fumbling for the keyboard, her hair is falling into her face (which shows her evasiveness) and she responds, “How am I supposed to know what kind of hat/shirt/tie he’s got? I’ve never met the guy. I mean, that’s a ridiculous question. Do you know everything about everybody in the world?” Weird, right? Very suspicious, without saying what she really means: “Leave me alone!”

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the wife is snapping at the husband. You should hear it in the way the words are confrontational, the phrases defensive (How am I supposed to…, Do you know everything…) and the surrounding activity somewhat cacophonous. The falling keyboard, the changing of her body’s position, the interrupted Skype session. For this reason, you don’t need to pepper your dialogue with too many squeaks, gasps, grumbles, mutters, purrs, pipes, or groans. It’s distracting to the eye, and the sentence should move in such a way that we sense tone automatically. As many teachers say, SAY is the invisible word, and it doesn’t hamper your reader, who will whizz through the dialogue as if they are eavesdropping on a real conversation. SAYS is mostly important as a tag, so we know who is speaking, unless it’s a two-person back-and-forth and your reader will pick up on the pattern, so it can be dropped for the sake of speed and economy (two of my favorite things as both a reader and a writer).

If you find your dialogue maintains a certain rigid, staged quality, eavesdrop–especially on arguments, secrets, jokes, interrogations, the intimate stuff–and observe the mechanisms. The way people pretend to not hear questions to which they’d prefer not to respond. The words they use as substitutes so they can discuss personal matters in public. And of course, true diction. Diction is vital in suspension of disbelief, because if someone sounds fake, we wake up from the dream. We notice the stage setting. We remember that we are reading. Diction saves us from that, and I don’t mean that everyone needs their own regional dialect (at all!) but rather that everyone needs a distinct and realistic style of speaking. As I said before, gestures, pauses, emphasis, word choice, all these things make dialogue real.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself, would someone really say this? How would they say it? There is a world of difference between “Well!” and “Well…”

One particular issue I notice in beginner dialogue is volume. Let’s take a look at an argument. Beginners often make the mistake that a blaring altercation is interesting, but in fact, it is taxing and amateur. Lovers in a quarrel, screaming vague obscenities and trite threats at one another, is just as annoying to read as it is to hear outside your window at 3 in the morning. However, a muted conversation in which one character is covertly attempting to go somewhere without the other character–that’s intriguing. It’s the quiet conversations that make the reader lean in closer. How could a character with disguised motives still get their way? Without blatantly saying, “I want to go to the beach on Saturday, alone.” Well, that’d be weird, wouldn’t it? Wanting to go to the beach, alone, for no reason? Certainly, the other character would ask why. So we don’t make it “the beach.” We make it “the gym.” A lie, most interesting!

“I don’t know, Bryan, I think I’m just going to go to the gym on Saturday.”
(I DON’T KNOW. A great way to let the audience know, this character DOES know, and doesn’t want to say it straight. “I don’t know” and “I guess,” these things crop up frequently in real conversation, with easily discernible tone. Can you hear it?)
“Oh, ok. I haven’t been to the gym in a while anyway. Maybe we could do that hot yoga Patrice keeps talking about.”
(The tone is clearly amiable–“oh, ok,” and agreeable. “Maybe we could…” Notice, too, the detail: hot yoga, Patrice. Detail serves to deepen the illusion in which our readers are mired, making this world ever more real.)
“You want to come? Are you sure? I don’t know how long I’ll be there. And it’s Saturday. Don’t you have that thing with Tom on Saturday?”
“No, that got moved to Wednesday. And yeah, I need to get to the gym. It’s fine. I can always come in my own car and leave when I’m ready.”
“I don’t know, Bryan. I kind of wanted… I guess I kind of wanted to have Saturday–to be–to do Saturday alone.”
(Almost says “be alone,” but adjusts mid-sentence to “do Saturday alone.” Lots of “I guess,” and “kind of.”)
“Oh… Any particular reason?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to be alone.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I don’t know!”
Lapse into silence. Playing with things around them–a spoon in the soup bowl, pencils at the library, whatever. This brings me to my next point: what happens when “arguments” or things like arguments reach their boiling point. There is usually a spike in volume (“I don’t know!”) followed by a break between the participants, and a return to lower volume. This conversation could continue, “Maybe I won’t go to the gym after all,” in a soft tone. Because that line is ambiguous, the tag should probably expound on the sound. You have to use your best judgment with the intuition of your audience and tagging.

Of course, this conversation could take off in a lot of ways. It could end there, awkward, unresolved, or it has the potential to become a full-blown fight. But full-blown fights (circling back around to the issue of volume) are typically not enduring. A full-blown fight, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to witness a real one, tends to explode within the space of several sentences, and then the contenders fly apart to their separate corners, or someone leaves. Most people don’t have the stamina it takes to just fight someone on and on, even if only verbally. As always, we want our fictional relationships to mimic the human condition. So, when volume does spike, it should spike quickly and then be cut off. It’s just not realistic to keep volume too high too long, and it’s not pleasant to read, either.

This also goes for violence, gore, sex, and vulgarity. A murder has the potential to be of screaming volume. However, it can also be subtle, silent, and I hope you agree that it is much more pleasant to read–and much scarier to think about–that way.