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 1

Many times when people talk, they don’t say what they mean. Their words are on one level, and the meaning lies underneath. The meaning may not have much at all to do with the spoken words. This is called subtexted dialogue.

It’s a common error for fledgling writers (and, unfortunately, sometimes not so fledgling) to write what I call WYSIWYG dialogue: What You See Is What You Get. All meaning is right on the surface—or “on the nose” as it’s sometimes called. Everything that’s meant is actually said. WYSIWYG dialogue that should be subtexted won’t seem well written. It’ll sound amateurish and not real to life.

Say two women, Jane and Mary, have volunteered for an all-day job at the church. After a time of working together, they get into a disagreement. Jane makes a thoughtless comment and hurts Mary’s feelings. They work for the next hour in testy silence. Meanwhile, Jane feels embarrassed about what she’s done and wants to make amends. At the end of their work, Jane says, “Want to go get a coffee? I’m buying.”

But getting a coffee isn’t really the main thing Jane wants, is it? What she’s trying to do is make amends. If we were to write what she’s really saying, it would look more like: “I’m really sorry I said that. I feel embarrassed about it. Would you let me buy you a coffee to make it up to you?”

Now the interesting thing about this subtext is that Mary will immediately understand Jane’s underlying meaning. But she won’t want to come out and say so. So she’ll respond within the same subtext. She might say, “Thanks. That would be great,” actual meaning: “I can see you feel bad, and I accept your apology.” Or she could say, rather curtly, “No thanks. I don’t have time,” meaning: “I’m still royally ticked at you and am not ready to accept an apology. And if you’re embarrassed about what you said, good! You should be.”

Of course, some dialogue should be WYSIWYG. The trick is knowing when to subtext.

People (and characters) have two general reasons for not saying what they mean: (1) they don’t want to admit what they’re thinking; or (2) they don’t need to say what they’re thinking because the other person already knows it. The “coffee” conversation is an example of situation #1: Jane doesn’t want to openly apologize because she’s embarrassed about the incident and doesn’t want to bring it up.

Situation #2 often occurs when the speakers stumble upon a subject that carries a lot of baggage between them. For example, let’s say your character Todd has a history of lying to his wife, Sue, and not supporting her emotionally. This has hurt her deeply. Now she catches him in another lie—something to do with helping their mutual friend Patricia. The lie in itself is a small one, but it triggers Sue’s memories of Todd’s numerous major betrayals. Her response could be written like this: She pulled back, eyes narrowed. “How thoughtful of you to be there when Pat needed you.” Real meaning—how can you be so quick to help a friend when you’re never there for me? Believe me, Todd will get the point.

Notice where the true meaning lies in the above examples of subtexted dialogue—not in the words themselves, but in everything that is occurring around the words: through the characters’ Thought, Inflection, Movement, and Expression. You can remember these elements through the acronym TIME.

In Getting into Character I use a scene containing a mere five innocuous words of dialogue as an example of subtexting and the use of TIME elements. Here’s the dialogue:

“Sleep well?”

In order to show how powerful subtexting can be, let’s say this is the opening scene of a book. To this point we don’t know the characters at all. How might you write a short scene, using these lines of dialogue, that fully depicts a very troubled marriage? That is, a scene without pages of backstory that simply tell us the marriage is troubled. How might we see the troubled marriage through merely the dialogue and its surrounding TIME elements?

Try it. See what you come up with. Next month we’ll look at the scene from Getting into Character and discuss how each TIME element is used.


Adapted from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins.