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