Dialogue and Subtext


lietomeI loved the show Lie to Me for its use of micro expressions–small facial ‘give aways’ that revealed the truth no matter how someone tried to stop it.  But what do these facial tics and bits of body language have to do with dialogue? Isn’t dialogue about putting down what someone is saying in your story?  Well yes–and no.

I’m doing a workshop on Dialogue for Outreach International Romance Writers starting this next Monday and I chose the title to be “Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean.” The title applies to a common mistake that many beginning writers make–the dialogue is too “on the nose.” That phrase is used to describe dialogue that is clumsy–it’s too specific and not the way anyone really talks.

This kind of dialogue crops up when a writer has a character explain his or her actions, give too much information about his or her past (with no motivation for providing all those details), or explain the plot to another character so the reader will catch up. Now, all of this can be done in character and brilliantly–but for most of us, the goal is to weave subtext and have characters not really say what they mean.

You want your characters to lie–and tell white lies. You want them to exaggerate. You want them to duck questions and change topics. Above all, you want emotion to drive most of what a character says. And this brings us back to those micro expressions and bits of body language–because what a character does while he or she is talking is a tip to the reader that something more is going on.

Do you really believe the story the wife is telling while she also fidgets with her wine glass and licks her lips and keeps looking away? Do you really think the guy likes his brother’s pal–even if the guy says he does–if the guy’s smile looks more like a grimace and he’s giving narrowed-eyed stares at the brother’s pal? Do you really think the little boy did not take the candy when he swears he didn’t if he hides chocolate-stained hands behind his back? Yes, those are all lies, but they’re also giving sub-text–more is going on underneath the dialogue than just the words that are spoken.

Now sometimes you do want your characters to be blunt–and honest. But even then, a character needs good reasons to be that blunt. Maybe it’s a habit. Maybe they’re fed up with the other person and want to drive them away. Those motivations have to be made clear to the reader.

Above all, a story must interest and keep a reader’s attention–and to do that you need dialogue that sparks with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be world-shattering conflict, but you want more going on underneath your words as characters work to get what they want in each scene. You want characters who don’t say what they mean, who go the long way around to get to a point, who offer indirect statements, and who sometimes never answer any questions. Always look for better ways to get more of your characters’ emotions on the page and less of their explanations.

And for more dialogue tips you’ll just have to take the workshop.

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