I ran into this delicious exchange in a client’s manuscript the other day. Rosemarie, a young virgin, is being seduced by the one eyed man. She distrusts him, she’s frightened, and she’s awash in guilt for the physical attraction she feels toward him.
‘No,’ said Rosemarie. ‘This isn’t right.’
‘No one’s watching,’ whispered the one eyed man.
Creating dialogue with clear, unique character voices can’t be done by rote. But it’s not magic, either. I’ve written before about techniques  you can use to enhance your character’s voice and tools you can bring to bear on stiff and formal dialogue. Another way to make your dialogue more authentic and memorable by to make it less explicit. It becomes more real when you leave things out.
Consider how much character conflict is going on behind the two lines quoted above. Being seen is the least of Rosemarie’s objections to the seduction, yet that’s what the one eyed man focuses on. He ignores all of her stronger objections, replaces them with a straw man, and knocks the straw man down. Yet he knows that losing that straw man is all the encouragement Rosemarie needs to give in. He shows himself to be insightful into what’s going on in her head and selfish and manipulative enough to use it against her. And the three words that capture all of that complex characterization are sharp and memorable because so little of it is spelled out.
To one degree or another, all conversations contain subtext – conscious or unconscious assumptions, hidden agendas, or clandestine motives lying behind the speaker’s words. And if you don’t pay attention to subtext, you’ll wind up writing dialogue where all your characters have the same subtext. Readers may not be conscious of it — you may not be conscious of it — but your characters are going to feel subtly the same because, under the surface, they all want the same thing from the conversation. You’ll never see the complex conflict that exists between the one eyed man and Rosemarie because everything in your dialogue is out in the open.
It’s been said that, when he was teaching acting classes, Elia Kazan would often give a couple of students each a slip of paper describing a situation, then ask them to improvise a scene. Thing is, he gave them two different situations. As they improvised, each one seeing the world slightly differently, their dialogue took on some of the confused authenticity and sparkle of real life.
Consider this passage, taken from my favorite source for examples of quality dialogue: Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Mandy Hampton is a political activist used to working outside government who has been brought into the Bartlett administration as a consultant. She also used to date Josh Lyman, Bartlett’s deputy chief of staff. They’re talking about how to deal with a group of survivalists who have taken hostages. Mandy has just suggested negotiating a peaceful settlement.
Josh: This is a standoff with federal officers. A peaceful settlement is “put your guns down, you’re under arrest.”
Mandy: I think it would be wise if we demonstrated that we exhausted every possible peaceful solution before we got all Ramboed up.
Josh: I don’t think it’s unreasonably macho for the White House to be aggressive in preserving democracy.
Mandy: Let me tell you something. Ultimately, it is not the nuts that are the greatest threat to democracy. As history has shown us over and over and over again, the greatest threat to democracy is the unbridled power of the state over its citizens. Which, by the way, is always unleashed in the name of preservation.
Josh: This isn’t abstract, Mandy. This isn’t a theoretical problem. The FBI says, ‘Come out with your hands up,’ you come out with your hands up. At which point, you’re free to avail yourself of the entire justice system.
Mandy: Do you really believe that? Or are you just pissed off because I got into the game?
Note how both of them approach the problem with a very different view of what government can and should do. Josh, the insider, trusts it. Mandy, the outsider, not so much. The clash of their two different takes on the world gives the dialogue a bit more crackle. And underneath this obvious disagreement, there is also the tension that comes from their having been lovers at one time in the not too distant past, even though that isn’t referred to until the end.
So how do you teach yourself to be aware of your characters’ subtext? One way is to put yourself into each character’s head as you write. Try writing key scenes from the point of view of every major character who takes part in them. Use a lot of interior monologue to force yourself to be aware of their thinking. And pay attention to how the dialogue may change subtly as the point of view changes. That’s where the clash of subtexts lies.
Leaving some of your dialogue unspoken can also show just how well your characters know one another. In essence, old friends or even long acquaintances are aware of one another’s subtext and show this by responding to an unspoken request. Consider the following, taken from another source of excellent dialogue – Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, in this case A Family Affair. Here, a client staying in the brownstone has just been killed by a bomb in the night. Wolfe has gone to ground in his room to avoid the police, and Archie has gone to the basement to wake Fritz Brenner, the long-time chef and housekeeper, and fill him in on the situation.
“Sorry to intrude,” I said, “but there’s a mess. A man came, and I put him in the South Room, and a bomb that he brought along went off and killed him. All the damage is in that room. Mr. Wolfe came up for a look and is now in his room with the door bolted. You may not get much more sleep, because a mob will be coming and there will be noise. When you take his breakfast up—“
“Five minutes,” he said. “You’ll be in the office?”
“No. Upstairs. South Room. When you take his breakfast, be sure you’re alone.”
Note how Archie, in describing the situation, immediately answers the question Fritz is most likely to ask – “How much damage was done?” And Fritz, who knows Archie well enough to realize he won’t ask for help – Archie does assume Fritz will be trying to go back to sleep — volunteers without being asked. And he doesn’t even make that explicit. He simply assumes that he’s going to be there and tells Archie how long it will take him to get dressed. And Archie accepts the offer simply by telling Fritz where he’ll be. You can see the longstanding friendship between the two of them in all the dialogue that they left out.
Compare these passages with this bit of dialogue, taken from a . . . lesser literary light – E. X. Giroux’s 1986 mystery, A Death for a Doctor. Miss Sanderson is secretary and surrogate mother to Dr. Forsythe. She has just been asked by the police to go undercover to help them solve the brutal murder of an entire family, including two young boys. Baby Lucy is the sole survivor.
“Dear God,” Miss Sanderson whispered. After a time she glanced up at Forsythe. “Robby, I know you disapprove, but I’m going to Maddersley. Mrs. Sutter can take over my work.”
“And if I forbid you to go?”
“You’ll have my resignation.”
Her words dropped like stones into a pool. [Here follows two paragraphs establishing how shocking the threat is, ending with one of the policemen saying,] “Surely it won’t come to that.”
Forsythe moved forward. He took one of his secretary’s hands in both of his. Her hand was cold. He squeezed it, trying to warm it. “No,” he said. “It certainly won’t. Sandy, I’ll trust your judgement. But why? The children?”
“The child. It’s too late for Arthur or Andrew or for the unborn baby. It’s not too late for little Lucy.”
There are a fair number of things wrong here – way too much time spent establishing the shock, a slip in the point of view, referring to the narrator by her formal title. But in addition to them, note how much of this conflict between Forsythe and Miss Sanderson is explicit, despite their long friendship. I’d cut it down to:
“Dear God.” Abigale glanced up at Forsythe. “Robby, Mrs. Sutter can take over my work.”
“And if I forbid you?”
“You’ll have my resignation.”
“Surely it won’t come to that,” Sergeant Brummel said.
Forsythe moved forward, took one of her hands in both of his, warming it. “No, it won’t. But why? The children?”
“The child. It’s not too late for little Lucy.”
Note that having her assume that he will disapprove and jump straight to suggesting her replacement shows how well she knows him. And his trust in her judgement is implied in his actions. It doesn’t have to be said. Their relationship comes through more clearly by cutting things that should be obvious between two people who know each other well. Essentially, their relationship is moved into the subtext.
Of course, it’s possible to go too far. In the interest of fast pace and giving readers a sense of being in the know, writers of hard-boiled crime novels and deep-noir detective stories often produce dialogue that borders on incomprehensible. Consider this, from James Elroy’s White Jazz. A police raid has just gone south because of a rookie cop’s mistake. Dave the narrator is the lieutenant in charge of the raid, trying to clean up the mess when someone else arrives on the scene.
“You owe me eleven hundred, Counselor.”
Make the voice: Jack Woods. Mixed bag – bookie/strongarm/contract trigger.
I walked over. “Did you catch the show?”
“I was just driving up – and you should put that kid, Stemmons, on a leash.”
“His daddy’s an inspector. I’m the kid’s mentor, so I’ve got a captain’s job as a lieutenant. Did you have a bet down?”
“I’m in the business myself, so I spread my own bets around for good will. Dave, you owe me eleven hundred.”
“How do you know you won?”
“The race was fixed.”
Jabber – newsmen, the locals. “I’ll get it out of the evidence vault.”
“C’est la guerre. And by the way, how’s your sister?”
“Say hi for me.”
If you’re used to this sort of thing, you can follow the conversation despite the sudden lurches from topic to topic and the need to guess at an awful lot of background in a hurry. (What bet, on what, and with whom? Why is it slumming? And is the reference to Dave’s sister an overture of friendship or a threat?) But even if you can follow the dialogue, the need to supply so much of what’s happening between the lines gets exhausting after a while. And the dialogue feels artificial, stylized. Real people simply don’t put that much work into leaving things out of their conversations.
So as you’re going over your dialogue, look for what you can cut away. If your characters know one another well, eliminate the obvious question and jump straight to the answer. Trim away the observations both sides would already be aware of – making sure your readers can still follow what’s going on. Try writing the scene from a different point of view and see how that changes things. You may find your character voices coming even more strongly to life because of what they don’t say as much as what they do.
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So what are your favorite examples of subtext in dialogue? Remember, give us enough detail to understand why the dialogue works. And please feel free to ask me to elaborate. There’s no reason the article can’t bleed over into the comments. Those conversations are often the most fun.