Thoughts on Subtexting

Yesterday, I started a new series of posts on the topic of subtexting in dialogue. I gave an example from Harry Potter Book 4. Today, I’m going to respond to comments from my loyal blog readers:

Sean wrote:

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?

Randy sez: Subtexting happens when the characters, for one reason or another, can’t say what they really think. So they dance around the issue. In the example I showed yesterday, Ron is scared to death to admit (even to himself) that he likes Hermione. Since Hermione likes Ron, she doesn’t want to mess things up by saying that she likes him. If she didn’t like him, she’d laugh in his face and tell him, “You’re just jealous!” And there wouldn’t be much conflict, because Ron would just scowl and say, “You’re mental!” and then he’d be off the hook and so would she.

Parker wrote:

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

Randy sez: Sarcasm can be a cover for a different message. Or it can just be rudeness. Subtexting happens when people can’t or won’t say what they think, whether from fear, anger, jealousy, or just plain cluelessness. And I’m sure there are a bunch more reasons.

Paulette wrote:

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.

Randy sez: What you are looking for is balance. The dialogue should be in the amount appropriate for your story and your genre. In an action-adventure novel, you’ll have less dialogue and more exploding helicopters. In a romance, you’ll have more dialogue.

Lois wrote:

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.

Randy sez: I don’t plan subtexting either. I just write. Subtexting happens when appropriate and it doesn’t happen when not appropriate. When I go back to edit, I see it and buff it up to be better, but I don’t have a schedule that tells me, “Write 2000 words today, and make sure 184 of them are subtexted dialogue.” I wouldn’t know how to write like that.

Gerhi posted a fairly long section from Alice in Wonderland. I have no understanding of this story at all, because I never read the book. Can somebody explain what is going on here? I have no context for it:

`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”!’


  1. Andra M. June 27, 2008 at 4:13 am #

    I don’t know if the Alice in Wonderland example is full of subtext, or merely playing with words. My reaction is that these characters are so different from each other, they aren’t communicating well.

    Maybe that’s the subtext – the inability to communicate.

  2. Daan Van der Merwe June 27, 2008 at 5:42 am #

    I have not read Alice in Wonderland either, but I like this dialogue, because it is not ordinary conversation and therefore not boring. If I understand the meaning of subtexting correctly, I see nothing of it here.

    This March Hare fellow seems to be even more rude than a crooked politician.

  3. Lois Hudson June 27, 2008 at 6:55 am #

    Oh, gentlemen, gentlemen! You’ve not read Alice?
    Must be a guy thing. As a mother of two sons, I discovered after they were half-grown that I had neglected their education. They weren’t interested in the children’s literature I grew up with. The siren of sports and their dad got to them first.

    Anyway, I’m relieved that subtexting is not a mechanical thing that has rules and regulations. Thanks, Randy. I’m looking forward to more illustrations.

  4. Robert Treskillard June 27, 2008 at 6:59 am #

    If this isn’t subtexting, then I would say it is a distant cousin. Subtexting is just a form of verbal sparring where the dialog isn’t what it seems.

    In the Alice In Wonderland example, the dialog is also not what it seems. Besides Alice, the other two are speaking in riddles and the meaning of their words is different from what it appears.

    “Your hair wants cutting” is probably referring to the rabbit, or “hare”, and not Alice’s hair, etc.

    The problem is that there may be idiom’s in this text that have fallen out of usage, making it harder for 21st century readers to understand.

  5. Mary Hake June 27, 2008 at 9:16 am #

    I think you’ve deprived yourself of a famous classic. Alice in Wonderland has depth beyond a childhood fantasy and is often referenced, so you should be familiar with it. The wordplay is fun too. I know men who enjoy it also.

  6. Julie June 27, 2008 at 11:04 am #

    ALthough i’ve not read Alice and Wonderland, i think i may recognize this scene from the Disney movie. If not, I think I can still decode it well enough…

    It seems to me like the Hare and the Hatter are both very curios about Alice. So, it seems as if they’re trying to toy with her. The subtexting is in them not saying, “Who are you and what are you doing here in Wonderland, and at my table?” As for Alice, much like Harry, she’s blissfully oblivious to what they’re trying to do.

    My take on it, anyways.

  7. Julie June 27, 2008 at 11:04 am #

    Alice in Wonderland*


  8. Wayne June 27, 2008 at 11:16 am #

    “Subtexting happens when the characters, for one reason or another, can’t say what they really think.”

    Interesting observation.

    So subtext would then seem to be a literary technique like dramatic irony involving information withheld from the characters.

    But you say “I don’t plan subtexting either. I just write.” Why not plan subtext? Shouldn’t an author plan what info to withhold?

    Also, what is the broader term for literary techniques that withhold information?

    Thanks for a great blog.

  9. Elizabeth June 27, 2008 at 2:09 pm #

    I don’t think the Alice excerpt is subtext, per se; it’s puns, wordplay, the author and the reader having a joke at the expense of the characters. (And I must add my voice to the throng urging you to read it; Carroll’s work is full of delight.)

    You said that you “don’t plan subtexting either. I just write.” which I’m surprised to hear; when I write dialogue or interior monologue, I’m very aware of what my characters aren’t saying, as much as I am of what they are — perhaps I’ve spent too much time studying Pinter, but that’s crucial for my character development.

  10. Pam Halter June 28, 2008 at 11:08 am #

    I think the Mad Hatter is simply mad … therefore his dialogue reveals that. He’s a delicious character and his interaction with the March Hare and the Dormouse is hilarious! I love this scene because it’s so much fun.

    I don’t see any subtexting except for maybe what Julie said.

  11. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren June 28, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    Alice in Wonderland is written seemingly nonsensical but is in fact satirically critical of Carroll’s Britian and society. The Hatter’s tea party is a particularly nonsensical interlude subtexting modern morals and propriety in this case concerning tea parties.
    Alice, wandering around happens on the tea party and invites herself. The conversation picks up right after that.

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

    The March Hare is using and encouraging tone but he is in fact discouraging. The discouraging part is in offering wine, because there isn’t any. His line mocks the idea of not saying what you want to say, which is “We don’t want you here.” which he of course says just after.

    The problem with subtext in Alice is that one line has subtext, the next doesn’t. One, line’s subtext refers to text in the story while the other refers to text (culture) outside.

    Either way. Read Alice, the original. The Disney version is about as similar to the original as what Baseball is like Football. Sure, you play both with a ball.

    Looking forward to more discussion about subtext though. Sorry I dragged everybody of track with a bit of nonsense.

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