Or dialogue is just the tip of the iceberg.

Good dialogue has a significant proportion of their mass below the surface of the spoken.

It’s the words that are left unspoken, but can be sensed by the other.

But for the reader to sense those undertones you need to built on thing first:


Subtext needs context.

Let’s look at an example:

Take a couple. They argue about their morning coffee and how their likes, concerning that coffee, have separated.

She: Don’t you like your coffee? He: No, can’t stand the taste of it anymore. She: Maybe you should try some milk in it. Give it a new flavor. He: Na, I think I’m ready for something new.

All in all nothing surprising here and in terms of dialogue it seems like it’s a another boring argument. But if you add subtext….

Ok, but how do you create subtext? Subtext needs a set up. Only if we know how characters think we know how to interpret what they say.

Subtext only works if we, A) know the character, his/her principles, traits, flaws etc, and B) the context. Subtext is what boils underneath the surface. You can only get to it, if you peel off the cover, layer by layer.

Back to our example with the coffee If you have a scene, at night, before the morning conversation, where she is teasing him, trying to get him sexually interested and he just doesn’t take the bait, then the conversation about the coffee gets a whole other meaning. That’s what subtext is all about. Introduce the character, create context and then let them hide what they really want to say in their conversation.

Another example: A lawyer is giving a waiter a hard time about her lunch. She complaints about how everything is overcooked and simply tastes awful. Now, without the context this would just make her a pretty awful person, not very likable, and it would also be quite on the nose in terms of dialogue, but if you’d seen her loose a major client just before her lunch, then her ramblings would have a whole different meaning and it suddenly wouldn’t be about the lunch, but more about the loss of the client.

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