An Important Part of Dialogue: Subtexting

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.

Example one:
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?”

Example two:
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.

15 thoughts on “An Important Part of Dialogue: Subtexting

  1. Katie

    You're totally on spot Krista. It's also when the character says one thing, but means the other. I just added some of this during my revisions for my WIP. I have my character says, "Thanks for stopping by. We'll have to do this again sometime." But it's obvious from T.I.M.E. that what she really means is, "Not if my life depended on it."

  2. Krista Phillips

    I LOVE the idea of subtexting, and probably don't do nearly enough of it in my writing. I've also heard it explained that it can be used when a character says one thing but means another.

    Jenny plastered on a smile. "Sure, I'd love to."

    "Great, I'll see you then."

    After Gerald left, she blew out her breath. Why, oh why had she agreed to a date with Mr. creepoid?

  3. Katie

    Nicole! How fun that you found my blog! I LOVE writing. In fact, I'd love to JUST write someday. It's where my heart is. Teaching is fun, but it's not my passion, ya know? Oh well… I keep telling myself that God has a plan. 🙂 Glad you liked my stories!

    Lynnette – don't you love when that happens? You read something and thinkg, "I do that!"

  4. Lynnette Labelle

    Thanks. I do that, but didn't realize it had a name.

    Lynnette Labelle

  5. Anonymous

    Hey Katie,
    After our dinner yesterday I decided to check out your Tweets and then landed on your blog. WOW – you blow me away! I had no idea you were a writer. I read the sneak peaks of your stories… I had that “can’t put the book down” feeling and wished there was more to read. Congratulations on getting your short stories published in OCFM; I cannot wait to read them!

    I took several creative writing courses in college, but haven’t written in several years. You have reignited my excitement and I’m anxious to get back to it. Thank you!


  6. Katie

    Wendy – me too! I make myself smile too. No, wait. That didn't come out right. YOU make me smile too. 🙂

    Ralene – LOVE it! Great stuff. This is sort of like a voice exercise, isn't it? Thanks for playing!

    Jeannie – I was laughing when I got to the end of yours. Not because it was funny, but because it was so good. I can totally picture the way she asks that question.

    Come play everybody! It's way too much fun!

  7. Jeannie Campbell

    Great exercise and info, Katie! Here's my take:

    With her on his arm, Blake's eyes bounced right over me. The only proof he even saw me was the tightening around his lips. I wasn't going to have it. Announcing his engagement to her after kissing me last night?

    The click of my heels sounded on the tile as I made my way straight toward him. I greeted people right and left, stopping once I reached him and Little Miss Can't Trust Her Fiance.

    "Uh, Carly…" Blake had never sounded less like himself. He wouldn't look me in the eye.

    I took control. "Blake, Leanne." I shook both their hands, letting my gaze rest on Blake. "I guess congratulations are in order. Had I known yesterday, I would have said something then." I smiled sweetly, my eyes not leaving his. "How are you today?"

  8. Ralene

    Great post, Katie. Hmmm…

    Sara Jane stopped in front of room 412 and stared at the curtain beyond the door. She could hear the television and the familiar voices of Shaggy and Scooby. Sighing, she smoothed her nurse's scrubs. She had to be perky, had to be happy. She took a step into the room and whisked the curtain back.

    His bright blue eyes lit up when he saw her, but his tuffs of golden blonde hair and emaciated form took her breath away. She held back tears. "How are you today?" she said, careful to keep her tone cheerful.

  9. Wendy

    This is insightful stuff! I like, I like! Thank you for educating and sharing the goods. Katie, I agree…God had us on a path to meet. Every time I read your comments on my blog I smile. You just plain make me smile. 😀
    ~ Wendy

  10. Katie

    Marybeth – please come back to play! I promise it will be fun. 🙂

    Eileen! I'm so glad my post sparked your memory. This book is awesome. So far I've used many of the ideas she has provided and it's taken my characters to a deeper level.

  11. Eileen Astels Watson

    Katie, this is proof that I must reread all those books I read years ago. I went down to pick up my copy of Getting Into Character, because I didn't remember it was written by Brandilyn Collins. I wanted to see if it was the same book. It is, and I've got highlighting all the way through it. Must do another crash course. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Marybeth Poppins

    OMG what an awesome post. I want to play but I'll have to come back. My brain is not quite functioning yet this morning!

    I really need a trip to the library!!!

  13. Katie

    Hey Jody! I love that idea too. It's actually my favorite part of dialogue!

    Sherrinda! So glad the post was helpful! This subtexting stuff is something I've sort of done, but now that I know about it, will be much more deliberate about it. Glad you liked it enough to bookmark it! Thanks!

    Getting into Characters is SUCH an awesome book. If you don't have it – you might consider it adding it to your writing craft to-be-purchased pile. 🙂

  14. sherrinda

    I have never heard the term subtexting and thought this post was EXCELLENT! I bookmarked it! 🙂
    Looking forward to layering passions. 🙂

  15. Jody Hedlund

    Hi Katie,
    Thanks for the quick and easy explanation of subtexting! I jotted everything down on a notecard! I love the idea of being able to convey something in dialogue that has a dual meaning or an underlying tone.


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