The most important thing for writing good dialogue is to make it sound natural, and reading it aloud is the way to find out if what you’ve written sounds natural or not. But really clever dialogue, dialogue that speaks far more than the words and that deepens the characters, uses subtext.
This post follows on from 4 tips for writing dialogue.
Subtext in dialogue
People don’t actually say everything they think. In dialogue, less is often more, and is usually more realistic. If you want the reader to know what a character is feeling, you can write the character’s thoughts as thoughts, if you’re in their POV—they don’t have to express them to the other character. Of course, if you’re not in the POV of the character whose thoughts you want to communicate, then you don’t have the option of writing out their inner thoughts; but in either situation, you can use their expressions, actions and gestures to communicate how they ‘really’ feel about the conversation.
I say ‘how they ‘really’ feel’ because people do sometimes say one thing and think another, but body language can indicate what they really think. Noting this kind of detail creates subtext in the dialogue, and that makes it interesting and real.
When you use a character’s tone of voice, facial expressions, actions and word selection (e.g. do they say ‘concerned’ or ‘pissed off’?) to hint at their real thoughts, the other person can also read and react to the body language. This makes much more interesting reading than laying it all out there, and it’s a key to writing good dialogue
An example writing good dialogue using subtext
Here’s an example of dialogue with subtext from one of my books, Lethal Inheritance. Ariel’s mother has a baby wombat in her arms and she’s feeding him from a doll’s bottle while she paces up and down their living room.
Two red spots, like fiery eyes, penetrated the darkness and raised goose-bumps on Ariel’s arms. A very large dog? More likely that stupid kid from down the street with laser pens. But the red spots disappeared too fast for Ariel to be sure she’d even seen them. She leapt up and pulled the curtains. The creepy feeling disappeared, but she’d have words with that kid at the bus stop tomorrow. He had no right skulking about in their garden.
The wombat sucked on in a steady rhythm but Nadima stopped pacing, her knuckles white where she gripped the bottle. Had she sensed something too? ‘I think we should leave early,’ she said.
‘What?’ Ariel’s spoon stopped an inch from her mouth.
‘The camping trip. Let’s leave tomorrow morning.’ Nadima plonked the now empty bottle on the bench.
Ariel lowered her spoon. ‘No way, I’ve got training after school tomorrow. There’s a race coming up, remember? I’m planning to beat Molly Gainsbrough in the eight hundred metres.’
Nadima pursed her lips, hugged the wombat tighter and patted his back. ‘You’d win the fencing medal if you went back to it.’
Ariel grimaced. ‘Give it up, Mum, I’d rather run than stick a blade in someone.’
Nadima sighed. ‘Fine, we’ll go Friday.’
‘We’ll make it a long weekend. We could both do with the extra day.’
Ariel frowned. What was going on? Her mother never let her skip school. But why complain? ‘Fine. Where are we going?’
Nadima stared into space and began rocking the wombat like a baby. ‘Somewhere new. It’s a surprise.’
‘New? What’s new within a two hundred kilometre radius?’
‘You’ll see.’ Her clipped tone signalled the end of the conversation.
Where is the subtext?
In this excerpt, Ariel’s mother indicates that perhaps she knows more than she’s letting on. Our clues are:
- … her knuckles white where she gripped the bottle, and Ariel’s wondering, Had she sensed something too?
- ‘Let’s leave tomorrow morning.’ Nadima plonked the now empty bottle on the bench. She didn’t place the bottle, she plonked it, giving a sense that she’d made a firm decision. You could also read a slight sense of frustration in the action. Is this a decision she didn’t want to have to make?
- Nadima pursed her lips. This tells us that she’s not happy with her daughter’s focus on the athletics meet;
- … hugged the wombat tighter and patted his back. There’s a sense here—remember the bottle—that the wombat is a surrogate child, and this action suggests that she fears losing her daughter;
- Nadima sighed. ‘Fine, we’ll go Friday.’ The sigh indicates that though she thinks it’s a bad idea, this isn’t a battle she’s prepared to have. This tells us something about her relationship with her daughter;
- ‘You’d win the fencing medal if you went back to it.’
Ariel grimaced. ‘Give it up, Mum, I’d rather run than stick a blade in someone.’ This is an example of information being hinted at rather than fully explained. Instead of telling the reader somewhere that Ariel used to be pretty good at fencing, this little piece of dialogue suggests it. It also suggests that Ariel had given up and her mother wasn’t happy about that. Why? This is a bit of foreshadowing; the fact that it’s there indicates that it’s important somehow, and that makes the reader wonder why. It adds to the sense of mystery;
- ‘Fine. Where are we going?’ Nadima stared into space … What kind of place when thought of makes you stare into space? This suggests that there’s something strange about this place. She also says that it’s a secret, which adds to the mystery;
- … began rocking the wombat like a baby. Nadima is still holding the wombat and rocking him ‘like a baby’. She’s holding onto her baby, reinforcing the idea in point 4;
- ‘You’ll see.’ Her clipped tone signalled the end of the conversation. This reinforces the idea that Nadima knows more than she’s telling and that, for some reason, she isn’t ready to tell her daughter. She’s cut the conversation short. Ariel, and the reader, will just have to wait.
Readers are not going to analyse your subtext like this, but the information is there nevertheless, and they absorb it as they read. This scene could have taken place with the wombat in his little bed, but I had him in Nadima’s arms to create this subtext. Nadima is right to want to hold onto her baby; the rest of the series tells you why.
How would it be without the subtext?
I have no doubt that there are much better examples of subtext in dialogue, but being my writing, I know it well. The point is, would it be as interesting if:
- Nadima had actually said to her daughter that she senses something outside and that she thinks they should get out of the house in case it is what she thinks it is;
- Ariel had said that was a great idea, instead of trying to convince her mother to stay;
- Nadima had told Ariel where they were going and why it was a bit of a strange place;
- Nadima had told Ariel why she should go back to fencing.
These are all things that we will discover as the story goes on, so there was no need to lay it all out for the reader up front. Hinting at it through subtext adds an air of mystery, which gives more dramatic tension to drive the story and keep the reader engaged.
So ask yourself what you want your characters to communicate, whether they would actually say all that and whether or not some of it can be communicated non-verbally as a subtext. And take a look at my previous article on writing good dialogue.
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