In a recent post on my Advanced Fiction Writing blog, I talked about "subtexting" in dialogue. I'm going to expand on that post here. Roughly speaking, subtexting refers to the art of putting a whole different layer of meaning under the surface, so that the dialogue is not really about what the dialogue appears to be about.
Let's look at an example. This is from Book 4 of the Harry Potter series. Harry and his friend Ron are at the Yule Ball, very much NOT enjoying themselves, when they're joined by their friend Hermione, whose date for the evening is Viktor Krum, a student from the rival school Durmstrang:
"It's hot, isn't it? said Hermione, fanning herself with her hand. "Viktor's just gone to get some drinks."
Ron gave her a withering look. "Viktor?" he said. "Hasn't he asked you to call him Vicky yet?"
Hermione looked at him in surprise. "What's up with you?" she said.
"If you don't know," said Ron scathingly, "I'm not going to tell you."
Hermione stared at him, then at Harry, who shrugged.
"He's from Durmstrang!" spat Ron. "He's competing against Harry! Against Hogwarts!
You--you're--" Ron was obviously casting around for words strong enough to describe Hermione's crime, "fraternizing with the enemy, that's what you're doing!"
Subtext is tricky, because a lot of times you need to know the context, and that's often not apparent in a short segment like this. The context is this:
Both Harry and Ron dithered around for a long time before asking girls to the ball. Harry asked Cho Chang, who he's had a crush on all year, and she turned him down because she'd already been asked.
Ron asked Hermione, who turned him down, claiming that she'd already been asked also. Ron didn't believe her, but she refused to say who had asked her out. So he
didn't find out until he got to the ball and learned that Hermione's date was Viktor Krum, one of the best Quidditch players in the world.
Why is Ron so mad at Hermione? It has nothing to do with "fraternizing with the enemy." It has everything to do with Ron being rather sweet on Hermione, and just
assuming (since she's rather a plain girl) that nobody else is particularly interested in her.
So Ron's angry at Krum for horning in on the girl he likes; he's really angry at Hermione for not knowing it (oh, but she does); and he's perfectly furious with himself for waiting so long to ask her out (as he should be).
Ron can't say any of that, because it would mean admitting to emotions that he barely understands, so he makes up a rather stupid excuse to be angry.
Hermione knows all this, of course, but she can't say anything, because this is omething Ron is going to have to figure out for himself. If she explained it to him, it would ruin the game, and the game is that Hermione likes Ron at least as much as he likes her.
Harry doesn't get any of this. Like Ron, he's way slow on the uptake, so he takes the entire conversation at face value.
And at face value, it's rather silly, because Viktor Krum isn't really the enemy. The rival school Durmstrang isn't the enemy.
The enemy is the evil Lord Voldemort. The enemy is the irrational rivalry between schools. The enemy is hatred. In that sense, it's Ron who is fraternizing with the enemy, not Hermione.
That is subtexting--two different dialogues going on at the same time, one visible, one invisible. The subtext is often a powerful hook on which to hang the theme of your story.
Now it should be obvious that you don't want to be using subtexting everywhere in your novel. If you do that, it's going to be extremely irritating to your reader.
What you DO want everywhere in your novel is conflict. If you have a dialogue in your novel without conflict, then you need to seriously ask if it is pulling its own weight. A novel is "characters in conflict."
Subtexting is one of many ways to achieve conflict. You use it when, for one reason or another, the characters can't say what they really mean.
You don't use it when the conflict is overt. In the Die Hard movies, for example, when Bruce Willis says, "Yippie kiyay
There is a time and place for everything. An explosion tends to settle conflict permanently (especially if accompanied by the "Yippie kiyay" incantation.) In , you want that. The purpose of movies like Die Hard is to reaffirm that there is justice in this world.
In the case of dear Hermione and dense Ron, however, there are still thousands of pages to go before the dust settles. Given that, you want to keep the conflict alive for a good long time.
Suppose that in the scene I showed above, Hermione decided to say what she really thinks. She'd say, "Ron, you're just jealous of Viktor and mad at yourself for not asking me sooner."
That would be the truth, but it would massively screw up the storyline. Ron's pride would be irrevocably injured. He'd laugh in Hermione's face and say, "You're
mental." Then he'd stalk away and never, ever, ever ask her out again. He'd probably end up with the dippy Lavender Brown.
If Hermione didn't like Ron, that's the way she'd handle the situation. But the fact is that Hermione likes Ron very much. She can't tell the truth, so she has to play dumb while Ron says things he doesn't really mean. The conflict continues for a full scene and their relationship lives on another day.
As I said, there's a time and a place for everything. Even the Die Hard movies use subtexting. Practically everything Bruce Willis says to his wife is packed with subtext. (In Die Hard #4, the subtext is there, but now it's with his daughter instead.)
I leave it as an exercise for the reader to explain what the subtext is in the DIE HARD movies and why it's necessary. If this means that you have to watch them
several times in order to figure it all out, well . . .
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 12,000 readers, every month. If
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