How to Create Subtext in Dialogue

There’s this unforgettable scene in the film Sideways where failed novelist Miles and his romantic interest Maya rhapsodize to one another about their reverence for wine.

Except that they’re talking about so much more.

An excerpt:

MILES

… [Pinot}’s a hard grape to grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and, in fact, can only grow in specific little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.

Here’s MAYA’s response:

The dialogue in this scene is brimming with subtext.

Miles and Maya may be talking about their favorite vintage, but it’s a metaphor for who they are and what they want — from life and from each other.

There’s camouflage and at the same time, revelation.

Miles himself is thin-skinned and temperamental, not a survivor — traits that are proven again and again throughout the film. When he talks about the constant care and attention Pinot requires to unlock its full splendor, we begin to realize he’s really talking about his own untapped potential and what he yearns for most in a mate.

Maya is much like the wine she describes: constantly evolving, ever-more complex, sensual and shamelessly lusty.

It’s all in the subtext. Intentionally crafted. Coded into the dialogue.

What is subtext?

Subtext refers to the emotions or thoughts underneath what’s said.  It’s sometimes beneath the character’s own awareness, yet it’s understood by the viewer or reader.

Think about your own conversations.

How often do you say exactly what you think or feel?

When emotions are charged, we are our least articulate. We skirt around the meaning of what we say. We evade intimate conversations by replacing them with less flammable ones.

We are constantly decoding what people mean by what they say.

Yet, the biggest misstep writers make with dialogue is having characters say exactly what they’re feeling or thinking.

When characters are too direct, readers can’t connect with or care about them. Because they don’t feel like real human beings.

How would the Sideways scene change if Miles had been this explicit? “I’m fragile. I need a woman who gets me, who takes the time to know me. Only then can I fully express myself.”

And what if Maya had made an overt play for Miles instead of masking her desire through the peak and “steady, inevitable decline” of Cabernet?

The scene would have a numbing effect. And we’d be deprived of the thrill of decoding the innuendos.

This is where character captivates –when the reader fills in what’s not said.

Think about what your characters can’t or won’t say. Then get at it aslant.

Here’s a writing exercise:

Write a scene of dialogue between two people. Both have a secret they’re not allowed or don’t want to reveal to the other.

Don’t divulge the secret.

Remember that non-spoken communication — gestures, body language, actions, micro-expressions — all count as dialogue. Note the body language in the Sideways clip.

Notice, too, your own interactions; whenever there’s a disparity between what’s spoken and non-verbal, we tend to trust the non-verbal cues more.

The goal of this exercise is to allow tensions to percolate beneath the surface dialogue. To reveal your characters’ interior. To allow the reader to collaborate — to intuit what’s not said.

Share your dialogue scene in the comments below.

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