A writing friend asked the other day, how do you write dialogue with strong subtext. My first thought was to answer, “How don’t you?” For years, I’ve found writing subtext to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. But clearly he didn’t. He was having a problem.

He knew that subtext meant the thoughts that the character is not saying – the ideas that are being suggested, but not actually voiced directly, below (sub) the text. And he knew that it was essential that dialogue had subtext, but somehow he was struggling to write it. Could I help?

Sherlock Holmes Sign of Four

Be a subtext detective – Sherlock Holmes Sign of Four (Muse Distribution International)

That made me stop and consider what I actually do instinctively when I’m writing dialogue and what lies behind what I do.

The subtext to writing subtext!

And I discovered there were nine steps to writing good dialogue with subtext.

1. Subtext is a muscle, like any other writing skill. You develop it by working it. At first it may seem hard but after putting in the hours you’ll find you start to develop an instinct. You’ll know when a line is “on the nose” and needs to be made more subtle and oblique. Be patient, work hard and the muscle will grow stronger.

2. First write the “text”. Talking to other writers, I found we all did the same. Our first drafts are full of dialogue that is unsubtle and too direct.

She starts to walk away.

                                        MIKE
I don’t want you to go just yet.

                                        CLAIRE
I can stay a little longer.

                                        MIKE
Let’s talk.

Then when we redraft we take all those lines and find ways of hiding those thoughts by having our characters talk (overtly) of other things.

She starts to walk away.

                                        MIKE
Claire?

                                        CLAIRE
Hmm…

                                        MIKE
(holds up crossword)
You wouldn’t happen to know what language they speak in India, do you?

(From Someone to Watch Over Me)

3. Listen to how real people talk. There’s nothing like a good dose of reality. Listen to the dialogue that people create  naturally and ask yourself what they are really thinking. Then ask yourself how you know.

4. Read, read, read. Do some detective work. Spy on how the great novelists, short story writers, screenwriters and playwrights do it. Then steal as much as you can get away with.

5. Try this exercise. Create two random characters and give them something they mustn’t mention. Say, two prisoners are waiting to be hanged. They talk of anything but that – the weather, their last meal, a mouse in the cell. See how every word, every pause, can be filled with unspoken meaning. I have two similar but more advanced subtext exercises that I use in my ScreenPLAY Advanced Writing Bootcamp.

6. Know your characters inside-out. One reason that it’s difficult to write subtext on the first draft is that you don’t yet know the characters well enough. Ibsen used to say, about writing plays, that in the first draft your characters are strangers. In the second draft they are friends, and by the third they are close family.

7. Practise, practise, practise. Keep a notebook with you always and jot down ideas for lines that come to you, lines that reveal without saying. When you’re waiting for a train or walking along the street, play with dialogue in your head. Keep exercising that muscle.

8. Cut, cut, cut.

Mary toys with her food. She looks up at Frank.

                                          MARY
Do you love me?

                                          FRANK
I have to admit that I don’t really love you very much.

                                          MARY
That makes me feel very unhappy, but I’ll just have to get on with it, even though my heart is breaking.

It’s fascinating how much can be revealed by a question that is left hanging after you’ve cut the answer. Or an answer given to a question that’s not been asked. Find creative ways for your characters to change the subject, or the reverse: return to an old subject.

Mary toys with her food. She looks up at Frank.

                                          MARY
Do you love me?

Frank says nothing but stares at his plate.

                                         MARY
I’ll get the dessert, then. It’s trifle. Your favourite.

9. And finally, in writing as in real life, sometimes emotions are running so high that people do actually say what they are really thinking. They blurt out their love, their fear, their hope. But even then, there is almost always a subtext beneath their directness. Even as your character says, “I love you” there’s still something that’s not being said.

If you want to know more about this or other aspects of writing, you can post your question to me in the reply box below.

(I won’t be able to answer every question, or do it privately, but if you’re happy for me to post my answer online, go for it).

If you liked this blog post, come to my next three-day ScreenPLAY Advanced Writing Bootcamp.

Have fun.