The Subtext in Dialogue

“‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings” – Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

What we say isn’t always what we actually mean. The implications of our words often have a deeper value beyond the surface. The societal conventions which most people (and many characters in your fiction) follow dictate certain codes of behavior and speech. Just as in real life, your characters’ words may have a double meaning, and many times may even be contradictory to the literal understanding. This is subtext.

Imagine a scenario of a married couple on the outs, yet attempting to maintain a facade regarding the strength of their marriage. It’s clear to see how the husband’s “Yes, dear” to his wife’s request isn’t really a “Yes, dear.” Likewise, the wife’s “I love you” wouldn’t actually mean that she loves her husband if the story shows their marriage falling apart.

Understanding subtext is one thing, but how can you translate that awareness to the page? I believe that the best way to show subtext is by amplifying your description of the character’s behaviors while they speak. If a character says “Yes, dear” through clenched teeth, your readers will have a much easier time picking up on it. Of course, sometimes you want to be quite a bit more subtle in your description. No reader likes to be beaten over the head with what can be inferred.

Without mastery of subtext, your dialogue will read as flat and unrealistic. Start giving more thought to your dialogue. Don’t just consider the right words—always consider your character’s true motivations and feelings.

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