Even if you don’t play Halo, watch the line of dialogue above. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Ignoring the fact that we don’t have a clue about what Nipple Academy is supposed to be (trust me, it’s not what you think it is), who is Yapflip? Why did you mistake him for Flipyap? Did Yapflip have other family members? What’s the relevance of all of this?
Oh no, all hope is lost! We need a hero to save us in our time of need! But wait, what’s that? Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No…it’s Captain Subtext! Archenemy of the evil villain Mr. Badwriter, Captain Subtext has the ability to make dialogue sound as if it was spoken by real people! (A stupendous superpower, if you ask me)
But the urge to make something obvious, to basically shove in the reader’s face how awesome this piece of dialogue is, is sometimes irresistible. You’ve got what you think is a really good back-and-forth or a scathing retort, but deep down you know people aren’t going to get it. There’s subtext there that people won’t read. So you make your dialogue more obvious in an attempt to get your point across better.
Mark my words, this is the death of good dialogue. Subtext is essential to actually making your characters sound like human beings. Unless you’re in a conversation with someone who’s insecure or socially inept, not everything that is understood is directly stated. 70 to 93 of human communication is nonverbal; make of that what you will.
The point is, there’s more to dialogue than just clever wording, but that’s something I’ve covered in previous blog posts. But if you’re ready for a newer challenge, you might be eager to try your hand at dialogue with subtext. Consider the following example:
Person 1: What are you doing?
Person: 2: Oh, uh…I’m awesome.
Person 1: *Looks him over* Full-time?
If you laughed (and you probably can’t because I can’t make good jokes for the life of me) you did because you understood the subtext. Person 2 set up a statement with a tiny bit of subtext that Person 1 exploited; that subtext was that “being awesome” was a day job. Obviously that’s not what Person 2 intended to say, but Person one inserted subtext that makes us laugh.
Subtext can also occur when two people are talking about something the existence of which is only assumed rather than mentioned. That’s because real humans don’t feel the need to bring up every parameter of a certain topic every five minutes. As illogical than it sounds, purposefully cutting certain important facts from dialogue will make it better instead of worse.
Of course, that goes without saying that important facts about a given piece of dialogue must be implied rather than directly mentioned. This is the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing dialogue, and it’s just as effective as its general counterpart. The best way to learn how to write subtext would be to study subtext in books, movies, and dialogue in real life. Just like anything in writing, it’s something you get better at the more you read.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!