Let’s take a piece of dialogue. “How are you today?” Pretty simple, right? Not much going on with these words. Pretty boring, actually. But wait. Let’s say we add some description, a deliberate action beat or two, and a few thoughts. Suddenly, this simple piece of dialogue can take on a whole new meaning.
Let’s take a look at two examples created by moi.
Missy searched the crowded auditorium, landed on her query, and skipped to her best friend. She couldn’t believe Ramone failed to mention that Robby, the cutest boy in Central High, had taken her out on a date last night. When she reached Ramone’s side, she grabbed her arm. Ramone snapped her head around. Missy jiggled her eyebrows and smirked. “How are you today?”
Pete cast a worried glance at his mother, who sat in the kitchen. In the dark. By herself. The papers she’d received in the mail yesterday strewn in front of her on the table, zapping every morsel of happiness from the room. Why did his dad have to ask for a divorce now, the day before he was leaving for college? Talk about lousy timing. He crept to his mother and reached out a tentative hand. “How are you today?” The words did little more than whisper past his lips.
In case you don’t know, this is called subtexting. It’s one of the seven methods Brandilyn Collins discusses in her book, Getting into Character. Subtexting is a very powerful tool to have in our writer’s box. If we want to write realistic dialogue, communication needs to go deeper than words. There should be an undercurrent of unspoken meaning flowing underneath. A subtext. A novel filled with “What you say, is what you get” speech (what Brandilyn refers to as WYSIWYG) will steal the reader’s oxygen and make them yawn. And that’s never a good thing.
So how do we subtext? Brandilyn offers some great advice and it all has to do with TIME – no, not hours and minutes. But T.I.M.E. Thought. Inflection. Movement. And Expression.
Let’s break these four components down using the two examples from above:
Thought – this is what’s going through the character’s head. In example one, Missy is thinking Ramone went on a date with the high school hunk. In example two, Pete is wondering why his dad chose such rotten timing to serve his mother divorce papers. These thoughts establish a mood and ground the reader in what’s to come.
Inflection – this involves how the character speaks. I don’t use inflection in example one. But in example two, Pete doesn’t just speak the words, he whispers them. The subtext behind the dialogue would be much different if instead of whispering the words, he grumbled. All of a sudden, the undercurrent behind his question changes. Pete’s no longer concerned. He’s now resentful.
Movement – this includes anything from subtle body language to large motions. Notice, I was very purposeful in choosing the way I have Missy move. She skips. She grabs Ramone’s arm. She jiggles her eyebrows. These movements convey a meaning. When she says, “How are you today?” I don’t need to italicize the word you, because we all know how she’s saying it. I was also purposeful in choosing the way I have Pete move. He creeps. He reaches out a tentative hand. These movements convey gentleness. If I would have had him stomp and jerk his hand, I would have changed the subtext.
Expression – In example one, Missy smirks. What if instead, I had Missy frown? What used to be excited curiosity would turn into disapproving jealousy. In example two, Pete casts a worried glance. But what if he would have glared at his mother? The story changes. Every expression comes attached with unspoken meaning.
When you put these four elements together – thought, inflection, movement, and expression – you can pretty much subtext any piece of dialogue, any way you’d like. It’s quite fun! You should try! In fact, instead of a question to ponder, I’m going to change it up a bit.
Challenge: Take the question, “How are you today?” and subtext it. Make it rich with meaning by using Brandilyn’s T.I.M.E. technique.