Subtext In Dialogue

Today I’d like to begin a new topic, and I think it would be cool to talk about dialogue for a bit. Dialogue is a big topic, of course, so let’s focus on subtexting.

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, who’s 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.

“Ron, what–?”

“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!”

Randy sez: 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 out 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 found 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 particularly is 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 (as he should be).

Ron can’t say any of that, of course, 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 something 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.

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.

That is subtexting–two different dialogues going on at the same time, one visible, one invisible.

Do you have a favorite example of subtexting in a book you like? Post a sample of it here and we can talk about some of them.

12 Comments

  1. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren June 26, 2008 at 8:17 am #

    Unfortunately 99% of my books is boxed and in storage so I can’t thumb for a quick quote. My favourite subtext dialogue has always been the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland. What is beautiful of Carroll’s subtext is that he satires current society and the subtext refers to the nonsense of Wonderland as well as contemporary British Society. Sorry I can’t post a quote. I’m going to Google quickly to see if I get something.

  2. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren June 26, 2008 at 8:19 am #

    Okay, it is not so difficult to find. Subtextual dialogue from Alice below:

    `Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

    Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

    `There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

    `Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

    `It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

    `I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

    `Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

    `You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

    The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

    `Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

    `Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

    `Exactly so,’ said Alice.

    `Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

    `I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

    `Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

  3. Sean June 26, 2008 at 10:32 am #

    Ah, great subject! I’ve been pondering this one for a while–how exactly does one go about writing subtexted dialogue? It’s easy enough to spot, and it’s wonderful to read when done well (as in the example of Lizzie vs. Lady Catherine in Pride & Prejudice), but how do you do it? Clearly you must have a previously established context that drives the subtext. But where I stumble is on the actual dialogue. How should what is said relate to what isn’t said?

  4. Parker Haynes June 26, 2008 at 11:16 am #

    If I’m understanding this correctly, it seems that an overtly sarcastic remark is frequently the visible side of subtext.

  5. Paulette L. Harris June 26, 2008 at 11:37 am #

    I have heard two different viewpoints about dialogue in our CBA fiction writing. One is that people who write dialogue are lazy and the other is that to tell a good story it should be full of dialogue to describe the characters in full.

    What say you snowflake guru? Just kidding of course Randy, I love this site and your opinions.

    Thanks in advance for your opinions.

    Paulette L. Harris

  6. Lois Hudson June 26, 2008 at 3:13 pm #

    And…Turn aside and cover your ears, Grammar Police…if your characters’ personalities, motives and situations drive the dialogue, doesn’t it happen naturally, or do we, should we, program it in? Does it, subtexting, should it, appear in all forms of writing?

    How might it differ from one character to another? Dialogue has been one of my stronger points, so I’m told, but I have not been aware of planning it, or even if I’ve accomplished it.

    (And…is the first sentence above an example?):-)

  7. Andra M. June 26, 2008 at 4:08 pm #

    This is definite food for thought. I don’t usually think about subtext when writing dialogue. I will pay close attention to subsequent entries on this subject so I can start adding it.

    Thanks!

  8. Camille June 26, 2008 at 5:26 pm #

    The only examples of subtexting I can think of are generally sarcasm in varying degrees, like Lizzy answering Lady C with, “I have not been at all able to account for the honour of seeing you here.” Sarcasm.

    And I’ve never heard anyone say the use of dialogue was lazy writing! Dialogue puts the reader in real time and pulls them into the story. I can’t imagine a story involving people without dialogue. Much can be shown during dialogue that would otherwise have to be “told”.

  9. Mary Hake June 26, 2008 at 6:25 pm #

    I think some subtexting happens naturally when writing dialogue–as the characters express themselves naturally it enters in just like in real life.

  10. Donald James Parker June 27, 2008 at 5:23 am #

    Good stuff, Randy. A couple of weeks ago I had never heard of subtexting. I ran across a whole chapter on it in Brandilyn Collin’s book Getting Into Character. I had regarded writing dialog as my strong suit. I quickly saw that I was only on the surface – just like my dialog. This is very helpful information. Brings back the old TV show motto – It’s not what you say but what you don’t say.

  11. Ann Isik July 6, 2008 at 7:14 am #

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4960358

    Someone has mentioned Pinter. A master of the art under discussion, I humbly submit. One of my favourite films is the adaptation of his ‘Betrayal’. For anyone interesed, I tracked down the above link, which is an audio of Pinter himself in a scene from ‘Betrayal’, playing the one who has been betrayed.

    I wonder how one would write ‘long silences between characters’ into a novel? Descriptions of body language? Any ideas? I think this is about subtexting and not off-subject. If I’m incorrect, ignore my ‘wondering’!

    Ann

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