A previous post on writing dialogue with purpose is critical information, but it’s still just a small part of writing good and realistic dialogue overall. A line packed with purpose, for example, could still be a poor line if it lacks subtext. I’ll show what subtext is and explain why subtext is important to dialogue.
Take a look at the line of dialogue in the following paragraph from Anakin Skywalker – and watch it here after the 50-second mark if you’re feeling brave. It’s full of purpose and still one of the worst lines of reported speech I’ve heard:
“From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you. And now that I’m with you again, I’m in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you, I can’t breathe. I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me. What can I do? I will do anything that you ask.”
A good line of dialogue must be nuanced and specific. All good writing is specific. Anakin is all cliché. It’s unnatural, inauthentic, and lacks any subtext, which will be even more apparent when you read the second half of this post.
What is subtext?
Subtext is the difference between what a character says and what a character means. If you’re not including subtext in your dialogue writing, then you aren’t writing realistic dialogue. Here’s a quick example to illustrate subtext:
A couple in your novel have a huge argument in front of friends. One of the couple storms out. A friend asks the one that was left behind, “Are you okay?” And they answer, “Perfect.”
We know they’re not okay, especially not perfect. It’s an obviously distressing situation, and, even in the short summary I’ve written, there are hints that they aren’t okay. To have a massive argument with someone, you’re probably emotionally invested. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even engage. Besides, few people feel good after an argument where one has stormed out.
The person isn’t perfect, and they feel bad, but they don’t want to or aren’t willing to talk about it. So that is the subtext, which is effectively showing and not telling in dialogue.
When a line of dialogue doesn’t use any subtext, and the character blurts out and tells their straight-up emotions – I am happy. I am sad. I am angry – then they stick out and sound unnatural. That doesn’t mean that a character will never say how they’re feeling. There will be occasions when a character does precisely that. But your most interesting and realistic lines will probably contain subtext.
If you write dialogue with subtext, you’re trusting your readers to understand your themes. And you must trust your readers. Never patronize.