1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Dialogue Subtext

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Catrin Lewis, May 29, 2016.

    So here I am with my novel written, and I'm just waiting for the last two beta readers to finish with it before I get my act together and independently publish it. But tonight I started wondering if it's far from ready. I'm worried about my dialogue. Is it too direct? Does it have enough subtext? Maybe I don't know how to incorporate subtext! Maybe I wouldn't recognize subtext if it crashed through my ceiling and scared all the cats!

    And if my characters don't get the things said that need to be said, if they're constantly beating around the bush, how is the plot going to move forward? The manuscript is long enough already!

    How does everyone else manage this? What published writers do you like who do it well? Is this the acid test of a good writer, that he/she can pull this off?

    The only good thing about this is that I'm a long way from hitting the "Publish" button. So I have time to tear my book apart. Gack. :bigeek:
     
  2. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    "If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

    - Ernest Hemingway talking about the Iceberg theory.

    He nails subtext. Read some of his work. I liked his short story Old Man at the Bridge a lot. If you haven't already, I strongly recommend reading the Old Man and the Sea. It is a case study of metaphors and subtext and you can read it in one sitting.
     
  3. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Having come down from lament mode a little, I see that my difficulty may stem from my understanding/perception that subtext depends on secrecy and non-disclosure, for the characters and for the reader. But I'm writing in deep third POV. So even when my POV character is talking with someone who is unaware of his or her underlying motivations and goals, the reader knows a great deal about them, because the POV character is disclosing them in his or her inner thoughts. So half the mystery is gone.

    But maybe that isn't a big deal? Maybe part of the reader's fun in Deep Third is having insight into the POV characters that the characters around them do not? And the goal of subtext is not posing riddles for the reader?

    Sorry about all the question marks. But it's where I still am.

    @Aaron Smith: I'm not particularly a fan of Mr. Hemingway's, but I know I have Old Man and the Sea around here somewhere. Maybe I should woman up and eat my literary vegetables, eh?
     
  4. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    There really is no reason not to read it. It's like 150 pages and usually when something wins a Pulitzer, it is worth giving a shot.
     
  5. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hey, I said was gonna. But for me, it's still vegetables. Probably turnips. I don't care for "man against the elements" stories. It just isn't my thing.
     
  6. Aaron Smith
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    Aaron Smith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fair enough. I would argue that it is much more than that, but it depends on how much the theme encompasses whatever you omitted.
     
  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think I've ever met a woman who enjoys Hemingway. I read him, as @Catrin Lewis suggests, as a sort of duty. I know he's good, I know I can learn from him, but, god, I don't enjoy his stories or characters at all.

    I think subtext in dialogue is a careful balance--you don't want to beat your readers over the head with what's going on, but you also don't want to be totally opaque. Writing in close third, I think, can make it easier to give hints, little pokes to make the reader pay attention... but, actually, I think those would be possible in just about any POV...

    You can say things like:

    "I'd really like to help," Marcus said, and his smile was so bright it was almost convincing.​

    or

    "We've been drinking a lot of tea, lately," Melanie said.

    Catherine bit back a sharp retort. "We have," she agreed calmly.​

    or whatever in just about any POV. You can make it clear there's more going on without actually spelling out exactly what's going on, if that makes sense?
     
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  8. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes . . . Maybe I should just go back and review my text to see if I've got that happening or not.

    Maybe I was frightened off this whole subtext thing by a writer's blog post I read awhile back. The blog author gave as an good example of subtext an excerpt from a novel (her own?) where the FMC is calling a friend (an old boyfriend, actually) to get some information she desperately needs, and he doesn't listen to her at all; he's too busy bringing up old times and hitting on her. Nice and indirect, if that's the object, but she never gets the info she was after.

    So tell me, how does this technique forward the story? Unfortunately, the blog author didn't let us know if all this "indirectness" meant the FMC had to get the info another way, which would have story consequences, or if she had to go without it, which ditto, or if she kept beating around the bush with the same dude. And what she tries a second source and he's uselessly indirect, too?

    So I said to hell with it. I'd have each scene reach the goals I set for it (though maybe not the goals my characters set for it) and get on with the show. But maybe that was dumb. Or maybe my dialogue has plenty of subtext, and I just don't realize it.

    It's scaring me to think every conversation has to be like a poem with multiple layers. I can write poems, more or less, but I don't have enough lifespan left to me to make every bit of dialogue into one.
     
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  9. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    In your example (without seeing it) I'd say if the FMC's old boyfriend doesn't care enough about her to listen to her needs—and THAT fact is important to the plot— then that scene could build character AND develop tension in the reader at the same time.

    If the FMC's old boyfriend's lack of empathy is NOT important to the plot, then don't waste much time with a lengthy scene like that. Instead, the MC is having trouble getting the information she needs, right? That's what's important here. So a couple of lines of dialogue showing that the boyfriend's not much help, then moving quickly along is probably the best thing to do.

    It's finding the purpose of the scene that's key. Of course if you're writing a lengthy, layered novel, you won't just leap from plot point to plot point. But at the same time, try not to linger too long on stuff that's just fun to write but doesn't really count towards the story. Or worse yet, that actually distracts from the story. If the author spends too much time showing the dynamics of an old relationship, as above, the reader will begin to think that old relationship is important to the plot. If it turns out not to be, and the important thing was the frustration over not getting the information instead, you've lost story momentum for nothing.
     
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