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:
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.
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.
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.
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”!’