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The Delicate Art of Doublespeak

by Durant Imboden

It isn't what your characters say;
it's what they really mean.

"Subtext"--what characters are saying between the lines--is what separates the amateurs from the pros in dialogue writing. It's a concept that you need to understand before you can write a successful novel, short story, play, or screenplay.

In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Hollywood script doctor Linda Seger offers a good explanation of subtext:

"Often, characters don't understand themselves. They're often not direct and don't say what they mean. We might say that the subtext is all the underlying drives and meanings that are not apparent to the character, but that are apparent to the audience or reader."

I say "tomayto," I mean "tomahto"

Let's study an example of subtext between a husband who craves sexual variety and his conservative wife of 20 years.

Hubby has just sat down at the dinner table, and his wife is at the stove.

Hubby: "What's for dinner?"

Wife: "Meatloaf."

Hubby: "Meatloaf again? We have meatloaf every Friday."

Wife: "You like meatloaf. You've never refused it."

Hubby: "It would be nice, just once, to have something different--like a salmon steak."

Wife: "I don't like salmon. You know that."

Hubby: "But I do. And if you'd give yourself a chance, you might like it better than you think."

The real conversation in this passage has nothing to do with meatloaf. It's all about sex--and it provides the "backstory" that we need to understand why the husband welcomes the attentions of a female colleague in chapter two.

Subtext = subtlety

Beginning writers have a tendency to make their characters' actions and dialogue too obvious.

In the passage above, a beginning writer might have the husband and wife arguing about a specific sex act while they're in bed. Such an approach could work, but the meatloaf argument is more effective because it shows how sexual incompatibility has affected the couple's entire relationship. It also shows that the husband and wife are unable to discuss sex openly after 20 years of marriage.

The next time you write dialogue between two characters, try using subtext. To quote the husband in our sample passage, "you might like it better than you think."

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