month we looked at subtexted
dialogue—when the meaning is hidden beneath the words—and how to use
the TIME elements of Thought, Inflection, Movement, and Expression to
show real meaning. (If you missed Part 1, read it first to catch
Now, here is the scene I
promised you from Getting into Character, using
only five words of dialogue to introduce us to a couple in a deeply
At last, silence. Not
even a creak from the padded rocking chair. She was too exhausted to
Early morning light
filtered through the checkered curtains,
patterning the floor at Missy Danton’s feet. Her newborn nursed in her
arms, sighing in contentment with each swallow. For hours, Missy had
despaired of this moment ever arriving. The baby had squalled all
night, filling her with fear at the thought of waking her husband.
Missy smoothed a
fingertip over the baby’s perfect cheek. How
could Franklin still treat her so badly after she’d given him such a
beautiful son? She’d been so sure a baby would change things. But the
pain in her left shoulder, where he’d punched her twice yesterday, baby
in her arms, screamed the bitter truth.
The nursery door pushed
open. Missy raised dull eyes to watch
Franklin’s head appear, hair matted from sleep. What she would give for
the slightest bit of compassion.
“Morning.” Her voice
was little more than a croak.
He slouched in the
doorway, dismissive eyes flicking over her
face, the baby. Languidly, then, he stretched, yawning with
Resentment rose like
hot acid within Missy. She pressed her lips
together, fingers tensing under the baby’s blanket. “Sleep well?”
Biting with sarcasm, the words slipped from her lips of their own
accord. The moment they were out, she wanted them back.
Franklin drew to his
full height, eyes narrowing. His head
tilted, and Missy could see the telltale vein on his neck begin to
throb. She braced herself, drawing her baby closer. Franklin’s mouth
opened in a smirk, his chin jutting. “Yeah,” he challenged, goading,
daring her to continue in such foolishness.
Fresh, nauseating fear
blanketed Missy’s anger. She now had more than herself to protect.
Missy lowered her eyes.
Remember that subtexted dialogue
occurs when (1) the speaker doesn’t
want to say what he’s thinking, or (2) the speaker doesn’t need to say
what he’s thinking because the other person already knows it. This
scene between Missy and Franklin contains examples of both situations.
Let’s look at the subtexted
meaning of each line:
“Morning.” Look at me
just once with compassion, Franklin.
I’ve been up all night with the son I’ve given you, and I’m exhausted.
“Morning.” Yeah, what
do I care? That’s your place, watching
the kid while I get my eight hours. (Situation #2)
“Sleep well?” I’m
sick of the way you treat me. You make me
furious. How can you be so selfish, sleeping all night while I was
having so much trouble? (Situation #1)
“Yeah.” You keep it
up, Missy, you’ll be sorry. A baby in your arms ain’t gonna keep me
from hitting you. (Situation #2)
one more piece of this
Missy lowered her eyes. Franklin,
I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me. Please don’t hit me. Please
don’t hurt my baby. (Situation #2)
at the scene,
substituting the subtexted dialogue with its
actual meaning. If the characters had spoken in such WYSIWYG (what you
see is what you get) terms, the scene would read as not “real” to life.
Instinctively we know these two characters wouldn’t speak to each other
Let’s look more closely at how
to use the TIME elements in a scene.
doesn’t just refer to italicized words of
literal thoughts. You can do that once in a while, but they are jarring
and quickly become tiring to the reader, so use them sparingly. In this
scene, thought has been depicted through narrative. One word of
caution: Since thought is often the easiest technique to employ. Don’t
overuse it, or you will simply move all meaning from spoken word to
narrative thought. This will negate the need for other kinds of
description and will deaden your scene, telling your story rather than
One or two well-chosen words can convey a
magnitude of meaning. Missy’s “Sleep well?” asked with biting sarcasm
spoke of her deep resentment and anger at Franklin. It had nothing to
do with wondering how he’d spent his night.
This includes body language as well as large motions. A slouch, a
jiggling foot, a flick of the hand—all convey messages.
Facial expression can be very effective even when
a character is otherwise still. Remember that Missy’s final
communication of accepting “her place” under Franklin’s abusive rule
was conveyed merely through lowering her eyes. Such silent expression
can tell the reader far more than words.
Take a look at the dialogue in
one of your scenes. Is it written in
WYSIWYG style when it should be subtexted? Maybe you’ve managed to
subtext bits of it, while other parts remain WYSIWYG. Dig deeper into
the meaning of the words—and show them through TIME elements instead of
the dialogue itself. And when you’re not writing—when you’re simply
conversing with others (or listening to a conversation), pay attention
to how often meaning is subtexted. The more you understand it in real
life, the more you’ll use it effectively in your writing.
Excerpted from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn