Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

My grandfather was a huge fan of saying “actions speak louder than words.” He believed keen observation would prevent me from being taken advantage of. While this lesson has served me well in my personal life, it’s also wise dialogue writing advice.

Great dialogue contains two messages. The first is shared through the direct dialogue exchanged between the two characters. The second is the unspoken or hidden message revealed through characters’ body language and facial expressions. We call that unspoken message subtext. 

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, calls subtext a “form of dialogue that contributes to the dance of power.” When subtext contradicts the message in your direct dialogue it amplifies the dramatic tension between characters and heightens the scene’s stakes. To understand what this looks like, let’s check out a few examples.

There are several ways to include subtext in your writing. Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is about a couple contemplating an abortion. In this section, lines of direct dialogue coupled with the girl’s silence reveal each characters’ true feelings about the choice in front of them.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.


“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”


The girl did not say anything.


“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”


“Then what will we do afterward?”


“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

Sometimes writers reveal subtext through gestures and observations as Pam Houston does in this scene from “Highwater,” an autobiographical short story from her collection Cowboys are My Weakness.

“So.” His voice made me jump. “What do you think our potential is in the long-long run?” It sounded like stocks.

“In the long-long run,” I said, “I think our potential is good.” His free hand drummed on the dashboard.

“Do you think I can satisfy you, sexually and otherwise, for a long time?”

I said, “I think you can satisfy me for a long time.” The veins around his temples looked like they would burst.

Without ever saying so, we know this man was hoping for another answer.

Sometimes subtext occurs between the story’s characters and the reader. Check out this phenomenal scene between the killer Chigurh and the owner of a convenience store from No Country for Old Men. In this scene, Chigurh is irritated by the proprietor’s “nosy” questions about what he’s been up to.  

CHIGURH
…What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.

 PROPRIETOR
I don’t know. I couldn’t say.

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered. Call it.

PROPRIETOR
Call it?

 CHIGURH
Yes.

PROPRIETOR
For what?

 CHIGURH
Just call it.

 PROPRIETOR
Well — we need to know what it is we’re callin’ for here.

CHIGURH
You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right.

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

CHIGURH
Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

When watching this scene, it’s clear the proprietor is afraid of his mysterious customer, but he has no idea who Chigurh really is or the stakes he’s playing for. But the reader does.

So, what can you do to increase the subtext in your dialogue?

  • When reading, identify passages where writers have created effective subtext. Pay attention to the hidden messages and how they’re communicated to you and the other characters.
  • In your own stories, analyze passages of dialogue that feel flat. Determine the purpose of the exchange. Identify what you want to say and what you hope to convey. Sometimes it helps to do this with a writing partner or workshop group. Make sure that at least part of what you wish to convey is unspoken.
  • Look for contradictory gestures, body language, vocal tics, and observations you can use to reveal the true meaning of the conversation.

Like all skills, subtext is one that requires practice. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll write engaging scenes readers will love. 

 

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

In early October, my father experienced a medical emergency that sent me to Upstate New York. During his recovery, I spent three weeks in my childhood hometown. During hospital visits and errands, I listened to the conversations around me—not just what was said, but the words each person used to convey their messages.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of any scene. When executed effectively, it catapults the reader into the heart of a story. The very best dialogue feels authentic and flows seamlessly from line to line. But don’t be fooled. Effective dialogue requires keen observation, advanced planning, and lots and lots of practice.

 Let’s start with two scenes.

Scene One

The pizza was cold when it arrived. Frank bit his slice then dropped it onto the table. “Man, those motherfuckers must’ve given us a bad batch.”

“A bad batch?” Gene raised an eyebrow in Frank’s direction.

“Yeah, a bad batch. You gotta watch out for dranos in a place like this—you know, people with nothing left to lose.”

Gene nodded as he pulled out a pack of Camels. Before he could retrieve a cigarette for himself, Frank expectantly held out his hand. Gene cleared his throat then handed him the pack. “Yeah, I know what you mean about dranos. Those fuckers will drain you dry.”

 Scene Two

A wall of heat blasted us as we entered the house. The thermostat hovered somewhere around eighty, even though it was only thirty-two degrees outside. After a few quick hugs, Grandma ushered us to the back bedroom. “I saved the medium-grit sheets for you’ins,” she said. “They’re the warmest ones.”

Eying the window I planned to open when we laid down for bed, I smiled and said, “They’ll do just fine.”

Even without physical descriptions, there’s no confusing Frank and Gene for Grandma. Two aspects of the writing differentiate these characters: dialect and diction.

You can identify the very best characters with only a few lines of dialogue. Often, their diction reads like a fingerprint.

According to Merriam Webster, diction is a “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.”

When writing dialogue, correctness means choosing the right words for your characters.

 To develop a character’s diction, consider the following: 

  • Slang: Slang is time- and region-dependent. For example, something might be groovy, rad, or dank depending on when you grew up. Someone might make you wicked nervous or hella nervous depending on whether you’re from Boston or California.
  •  Phraseology: One character might use davenport to describe a piece of living room furniture. Another might say sofa. A third might say couch. Each choice reveals another aspect of who your character is and how they view the world.
  • Rhythm: A nervous character might speak quickly or run several sentences together while a depressed character might speak slowly and or use frequent pauses.
  • Idioms or Personal Phrases: An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. Many popular clichés are also idioms. Think “piece of cake,” “wear my heart on my sleeve,” and “live off the fat of the land.” While you don’t want to fill your work with clichés, see if there’s a way to create some fresh idioms for your dialogue. A great way to find fresh idioms is to pay attention to the phrases used by people around you. For example, my brother is a fan of saying, “You’re risking a scab” anytime someone engages in risky behavior or makes a smart-aleck remark.

Novelist John Gregory Dunne recorded interesting phrases he heard on notecards he kept in his wallet.

Another way to increase the authenticity of your work is through the careful use of dialect. Again, quoting Merriam Webster, dialect is “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation from other regional varieties, and constituting together with them a single language.”

In writing, dialect could look like “Y’all, I ain’t got a dog in that fight,” or “Yo, that’s some mad fresh pizza.”

While the occasional use of dialect writing can add flavor to a text, heavy use of dialect can backfire. This is more likely to happen when your character is from a group you don’t belong to or the dialect includes a barrage of phonetically spelled words and unfamiliar slang. At the very least, poorly executed dialect overwhelms readers with its unfamiliarity. At the very worst, it can reinforce negative stereotypes and discriminatory views.

Dialect writing is tricky. There are often nuances in regional speech patterns that even native speakers get wrong. When these faux pas occur, writers lose credibility with their readers.

The key to using diction and dialect effectively is to do your research.

  • Listen to recordings and historically accurate film clips from the time or region you’re writing about.
  • Look for what makes a speech pattern unique and capture that in your work.
  • Use dialect sparingly and avoid overuse of contractions and phonetic spellings. Instead of writing a word like “gotta” on the page, consider writing “have got to.” When reading aloud you can always use the shortened form to enhance the sound of your work.

In her blog post “A Writer’s Guide to Speech Patterns,” writer Mara Mahan has an excellent list of questions every writer should consider when designing a character’s dialect and diction. Her questions cover topics like a character’s rate of speech, use of positive or negative statements, and the importance of considering your context. For example, would your character speak to her best friend in the same way she speaks to her parents?

Fleshing out your dialogue is worth the effort. Effective dialect and diction can make the difference between a publication and work that gets buried in a slush pile. 

Thankfully, my father is recovering from his serious illness. This means I can focus on the gifts this experience has given to me, such as the chance to develop some mindful attention to dialogue. You don’t need a medical emergency to sharpen these skills. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to train your ear. As you sit with family members, listen to the words they use. Carry a few notecards in your pocket. When you encounter an interesting phrase, jot it down.

The Death of Sonny

The Death of Sonny

This personal essay was a finalist in the

 Hippocampus Literary Magazine’s Remember In November Contest

   

  “Without smoke, you can’t see the light.”

  My husband Alex said this to me while explaining why professional tours use fog machines in their light shows. The particles reflect the light so we can see the beam’s path. Without the particles, the beauty is lost.

 I already knew about smoke and beauty. As kids, my brothers and I had been firebugs who created blazes in the abandoned brickyard near our house. Some fires were taller than we were. Heat waves shimmered in the smoky boundary between fresh air and flame, creating an ethereal blur we called the place between worlds. Sometimes we jumped through those flames hoping to boundary hop into this magical kingdom of particles and light.

Sitting in the band’s touring van as we waited for our new driver, Mario, I was once again surrounded by smoke. It was March 5, 1997, halfway through the European leg of Biohazard’s Mata Leão tour. Alex’s band was Biohazard’s opener. I’d joined the tour a week ago, half-hoping to find myself. Today was the band’s day off. We’d spent the early afternoon wandering through Innsbruck, a small city high in the Austrian Alps. At 3:30 p.m., we boarded the van and prepared to leave for Prague. Mario was supposed to arrive at four. It was now five-thirty.

 He was late, even by rock-n-roll standards.

 

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

I remember the exact moment when I decided to become a writer. It was the winter of 1987. I was in sixth-period study hall, gripping Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The book catapulted me into the world of Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, making the rowdy seventh graders around me disappear. Every day that week, I stayed up well past midnight, unable to put Pet Sematary down.

I spent the next few years in various states of terror as I devoured King’s most famous works including It, The Stand, and The Tommyknockers. Stephen King is a masterful storyteller. His skills with dialogue, plot, character development, and scene-setting are incredible. But even during those early years of fandom, I regularly ran across what felt like a major flaw in his books: the backstory problem. 

Early chapters in King’s novels were absolutely riveting. But just as the story began to truck along, he’d interrupt the forward-moving story with a fifty-plus-page U-turn into the past. I remember little of those forays into backstory other than my fervent desire to skip them.

This summer, I experienced a similar backstory trap as I revised my memoir. Despite everything I tell students and clients, I found myself loading early chapters with backstory about my childhood experiences. The problem had my internal editor on high alert. Every move felt wrong, and yet I continued to scramble around in the past, believing it was all essential. 

As I continued to wrestle with this problem, I researched common backstory traps to see which one I’d fallen into. 

Problem One: The Kitchen Sink

Authors want readers to know who their characters really are. And, because the past often predicts the future, sometimes they share everything leading up to the story present. While some backstory might be essential, most of it is unnecessary.  Even when a scene from the past seems like a perfect fit, it’s important to justify its presence. 

In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory Seamlessly into Your Novel,” agent Jeff Kleinman is quoted as saying “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.” Look at what the character wants to say and not what you as the writer want to convey.

Solution: Take time to understand who your characters are and what your story is about. Once you’ve solidified the narrative arc, think about what backstory items directly affect your story. Ask your characters what they desperately need to say for readers to understand them.

Problem Two: The Dump

In early drafts, it’s not uncommon for writers to dump essential backstory into the first few chapters of the book. Writers who use this technique sometimes hope wounds revealed on page seventeen will have a huge payoff on page 210. If you’ve sunk a good hook into the reader, they might employ the skip technique to work their way around your backstory dump. But, if your hook is insufficient or the story doesn’t actually start until page eighty, readers are likely to put your book down. Even when readers stick with your story, they might not remember that page seventeen detail if there’s a lengthy gap between initial mention and payoff.

Solution: Place backstory properly. While some backstory belongs in early chapters, other episodes might work best as flashbacks that amplify a pivotal moment. Instead of planting that wound on page seventeen, consider a flashback at the moment when that wound matters most. This can be particularly powerful if the flashback is essential to the conflict or understanding a character’s motivation during a specific scene.

 

Problem Three: The Stand-In

Sometimes backstory is a stand-in for character development. Interesting tidbits from the past are used to create intrigue but they tell us nothing about a character’s present experience. In her essay “How to Tell if Backstory is Sabotaging Your Novel,” Roz Morris writes about this problem using a character who was raised by theater folk as an example. “The writer hopes [the theater upbringing] will make her interesting. It does, to a point, but it’s only the start. The real value is in what it makes her. Does she crave security and a settled life as a result, or has it left her with itchy feet? Perhaps these twin urges are at odds inside her, sometimes pulling her one way, sometimes the other.”

Solution: Develop characters fully in the forward-moving narrative. Place them in interesting scenes where you can show who they really are. Give them quirky mannerisms and fresh dialogue only they can deliver. Let their reactions to other characters and your story’s conflicts define them.  If a colorful backstory exists, make sure it defines who they currently are.

 

Problem Four: Off-Page Issues 

Sometimes we’re stuck in backstory because it’s safe. We know what happened and how we feel about it.  Early chapters in my memoir introduce important events leading up to my brother’s suicide. Everything else happens after he’s gone. As I approached the chapters leading to that tragic moment, swells of grief washed over me. I realized that while I likely have some on-the-page backstory issues (dumping, anyone?), some of my problems are internal. 

While circling around backstory to avoid painful feelings is a common memoir problem, writers working on thinly-veiled novels are also at risk. This problem can even happen when the plot differs greatly from the writer’s life, but the feeling tone of the conflict rings true to the writer’s experience.  

Solution: Practice self-care and manage expectations about your progress. Allow yourself to take breaks, write at a slower pace, and affirm the power of the process. Give yourself permission to work on something else until the story feels less intense.

Once I realized my biggest backstory trap was off the page, I pushed back a deadline, wrote for shorter periods, and completed more meditations.  As I accepted this part of the writing life, revising became easier. Three weeks ago, my story began sharing its secrets through late-night wakeups and flashes of inspiration. Now that we’re on speaking terms, I can ask my characters what parts of my backstory are absolutely essential.

Meet Our Memoirists: Lisa Cooper Ellison

Meet Our Memoirists: Lisa Cooper Ellison

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 It takes a special kind of person to lean into other people’s stories and help them untangle the knotted threads at their centers. It takes a special kind of person to lean into her own story and give it voice with the hope that others in similar circumstances might feel less alone. Author and teacher Lisa Cooper Ellison is, without a doubt, that special kind of person.

Lisa and I first connected over our shared goal of exploring the psychological journeys memoir writers inevitably face when they endeavor to commit words to the page to make meaning of their painful experiences. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of being on the receiving end of Lisa’s generosity of spirit and boundless compassion on more than one occasion and have witnessed firsthand her gentle yet persistent guidance as a writing companion and friend. Her work as a writing coach and editor has enabled her to build a meaningful network comprised of writers at all levels who understand the value of creative support. As a former mental health counselor, Lisa knows the kind of work that’s necessary to peel back the layers of trauma and find healing. As a trauma survivor and memoirist, Lisa has the added credibility of having done that work herself. She’s in the process of completing a memoir called, Lucky Me that confronts the lasting grief of her brother’s mental health crisis and death by suicide. She’s published essays on the same themes in The Guardian, Kenyon Review Online and other publications, she’s written multiple pieces on the craft of writing, and she’s compiled her insights about trauma writing into her forthcoming book, How to Write about What Keeps You up at Night without Staying up All Night.  I recently asked Lisa to tell us more about her writing and her work with other writers, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about this inspiring author.

Pin It on Pinterest