Subtext–When Your Characters Don’t Say What They Mean, or Mean What They Say

There’s a concept I’ve mainly seen in screenwriting called “on the nose” dialogue. That’s dialogue in which there is no subtext, in which a character baldly says exactly what they’re feeling inside.

What’s the problem with this? First, in the real world people almost never say what they’re really feeling. Emotions make us feel vulnerable. If we admit we like someone, we risk hearing back that the someone doesn’t feel the same way. If we tell a friend a secret, like how terrified we are of tiny little dogs, we risk being ridiculed.

Second, in fiction, if the dialogue is “on the nose,” it deflates the tension between our characters and in the story.  We expect to be told all sorts of lies in the course of a story. Or maybe not so much lies, but we expect that the realization that a character has early in the book, or half-way through or three-quarters of the way through might not actually be true. People and characters don’t even tell themselves the truth most of the time.

So, like real people, our characters should hide what they really feel. They should nibble around the edges of expressing their true emotions. Maybe they invite the special someone over for dinner, but make sure he knows he’s just one of several guests. Or he admires her new smart phone and asks all about it because he’s been thinking about buying one like it.

Here’s a hastily written example of dialogue that is thoroughly on-the-nose. Boyfriend and Girlfriend are talking on the phone:

Boyfriend: Okay if I bring Spot tonight?
(Girlfriend smiles happily)
Girlfriend: You know I love your dog.
Boyfriend: And we’ll need to stop by Mom’s on the way to the restaurant.
(Still smiling, Girlfriend nods)
Girlfriend: Your mom is great. I’m always glad to see her.

So here, “You know I love your dog” means “You know I love your dog.” And “Your mom is great” means “Your mom is great.” Girlfriend is saying exactly what she means. It’s pretty boring and doesn’t say much about the characters.

Here’s an example where the action gives the dialogue a little bit of subtext:

Boyfriend: Okay if I bring Spot tonight?
(Girlfriend sticks a finger down her throat & mimes gagging)
Girlfriend: You know I love your dog.
Boyfriend: And we’ll need to stop by Mom’s on the way to the restaurant.
(Girlfriend screams silently while pulling at her hair and kicking her feet)
Girlfriend: Your mom is great. I’m always glad to see her.

Now “You know I love your dog” means “Your dog disgusts me.” And “Your mom is great” means “I hate her, she drives me crazy.”

So think about what you say to your spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, parents, particularly if there are emotions at stake. Are you speaking on the nose, saying exactly what you feel? Or is there subtext?

And as you write your characters, make sure there’s a message under the dialogue that doesn’t necessarily match what’s being said. That’s subtext. And subtext will amp up your writing.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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2 Responses to Subtext–When Your Characters Don’t Say What They Mean, or Mean What They Say

  1. alicebeesley says:

    I love this post on subtext and got a good laugh out of the second example of the girlfriend and boyfriend on the phone. Thanks!

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