The Rayne Tour
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Subtexting In Dialogue
Part 2

Last 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 up.)

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 troubled marriage:

At last, silence. Not even a creak from the padded rocking chair. She was too exhausted to push.

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 exaggeration. “Morning.”

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. (Situation #1)

“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)

There’s one more piece of this conversation, unspoken:

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)

Relook 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 so openly.

Let’s look more closely at how to use the TIME elements in a scene.

Thought: This 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 showing it.

Inflection: 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.

Movement: This includes body language as well as large motions. A slouch, a jiggling foot, a flick of the hand—all convey messages.

Expression: 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 Collins.