Monday, November 8, 2010

What Isn't Said: Subtext in Dialogue

Dialogue is all about getting things said—usually important things:

“I am your father.”

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

We spend a lot of time polishing our dialogue and learning how to make it sound as lifelike and powerful as possible. But amidst all this polishing, we can’t afford to miss one of the most important dichotomies in fiction.

Sometimes the most important moments in dialogue are about what isn’t said.

Words aren’t always strong enough to convey the impact of certain emotions. At times, silence speaks louder than words. And, surprisingly often, silence (or its equivalent in the form of seemingly mundane dialogue that pulls double duty by communicating far more than the face value of the words themselves) offers blinding insight into characterization.

So how do you know when you’re better off telling your chatty characters to stuff a sock in it?

  • When strong emotions are at play. “I hate you” just doesn’t get the message across as strongly as an icy stare (and, yes, Revenge of the Sith I’m looking at you).
  • When an action communicates more strongly or more succinctly. Whether that action is something as dynamic as an angry wife throwing a chicken at her husband’s head, or something subtler, such as her pretending to be so absorbed in cutting the chicken that she doesn’t have time to respond to his entreaties, it’s hard to argue with body language.
  • When dialogue adds nothing important. If small talk isn’t moving the plot forward, cut it. On the other hand, if that same small talk is offering insight into the situation at hand (such as, perhaps, the characters’ fear of discussing deeper subjects), the very “uselessness” of the dialogue becomes a sort of silence unto itself.
  • When too much information damages the suspense. If your characters are spouting off everything they know, it’s probably time to clap a hand over their mouths. Characters with secrets are always more interesting. Just make sure you’re making the existence of those secrets clear to readers. A character who avoids answering a question or who chooses to change the subject skyrockets the value of what he doesn’t say.
  • When it best serves the character. Some characters just aren’t built to be motormouths. The strong silent type can be a challenge to write (as I discovered in my medieval novel Behold the Dawn), but their taciturn natures give authors the opportunity to make sure every word counts.

Never be afraid of the silence. Use it to your advantage (as do experienced interviewers) to make characters and readers alike perk up their ears and pay attention.

Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share


  1. Another great article and I think one we can take into real life. In certain situations, we just need to be quiet. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Hmmm. In that case, I may cut the scene I wrote yesterday. :/

  3. You're absolutely right. I find dialog to be one of the greatest fun in writing. Not because of what is said, but because of what "people WANT to say". It's like cryptography. Great post.

  4. I'm often on the lookout for scenes where the characters talk too much. I look at what they say, then erase most of the buildup and leave just the conclusion. The buildup gets turned into movements, glances, interior monologue, etc., or simply left out as unnecessary. The reader can fill in most of the blanks and it will feel more real to him when he does.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  5. @Betty: Definitely! One of my favorite sayings: "Never miss a good opportunity to shut up."

    @Lorna: Stick it in a delete folder, so you still have it if you change your mind later.

    @Ben: Dialogue's easily my favorite part too. It's like approaching a marvelous buffet. So many options, and they all look delicious!

    @authorguy: In early drafts, characters often talk on and on, as they figure out exactly what needs saying. Once they've finally found the pertinent words, it's a relatively simple matter to go back and cut out those that aren't necessary.

  6. This so true. And sometimes it's so hard to know when the characters should just SHUT UP! or when they should keep talking. Probably most of the time they need to shut up ;P .

  7. Usually, I let them talk themselves out in the first draft, then go back and cut.

  8. Love your Star Wars references. :D

    You're right, I've been working on ways to convey feelings apart from words, even ironic meanings to current words. I want people to know a character's reaction, "Wonderful!", actually means they're disappointed in an outcome.

    In Savage Worlds, I have a scene where Iban's smalltalk with his other-race farmhand has the feel of Iban being nervous about inviting him to supper some night. It takes experience to make it work.

    ~ VT

  9. Awesome stuff ;o) I agree silence and a movement speak louder than words (sorry for the cliche) Fantastic advice!

    Thank you for sharing ;o)

  10. @Victor: Experience is definitely key. It's much easier to make a character say what he means rather than what he doesn't mean.

    @Erica: It's a cliche I resorted to myself!

  11. Good thoughts, Katie. I just was talking to a friend the other day about putting too much description into their dialog. That is another beast all together.

  12. Yeah, info dumps in dialogue can get ugly real fast!

  13. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. I love putting my characters in a room (or anywhere) and letting them talk. I tighten later. Whether I do it well enough is still open for discussion.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  14. I've been playing shrink this week and sitting back and letting my characters spill their guts on the page. I'm definitely going to have to do some tightening later!

  15. I love that saying! :)
    And I've been having fun with my characters - one who refuses to be quiet and one who hardly ever says anything. I did end up having to cut some of the first one's conversations even in the rough draft - he was kind of a late character who was quite willing to take over the story from the quiet MC. :D
    Great post!

  16. Taciturn characters present their own challenges. My hero in my medieval novel Behold the Dawn was that way, so I gave him an impossibly cheeky, chatty sidekick. Lots of fun!

  17. Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" is a good example of the protagonists using small talk to keep from discussing a bigger issue. Some authors are really good at dialogue and I try to reread those sections of dialogue and think about how they do it.

  18. That one's a perfect example. Hemingway was a master as this sort of thing.