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.
“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.