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Oct 5, 2012

How to Convey Subtext in Dialogue - Part 2

"I think you've mistaken me for someone else. I'm not that man."

Subtext is the art of saying the unsaid and thinking the unthinkable. There are several techniques that authors use to convey this. Among others:

1. Secret dialogue.
2. Actions speak louder than words.
3. Catch phrase or repetition.

In this post, I'll discuss the first, possibly most common technique, secret dialogue.

Secret Dialogue

In the Fever series, by Karen Marie Moning, feisty heroine Mac and sexy antihero Jericho Barrons have to work together to defeat the Unseelie before they take over the world, starting with Dublin. Unfortunately, they don't trust each other--and they don't communicate very well. At least not openly. They have whole "non-conversations" however, through silent understandings, exchanged through glances and conveyed to the reader through italics. This one is from Faefever, the third book:

We looked at each other and for a moment those clouds of distrust lifted and I saw his thoughts in his eyes.

You were something see, he didn't say.

You were something to feel, I didn't reply

His gaze shuttered.

I looked away.
As Mac later notes, "The most confused we ever get is when we're trying to convince our heads of something our heart knows is a lie."

T-shirt: I'm a juicy girl. Barrons: "I bet you are."

By the way, the Fever series also features a way to use obtext that I didn't mention in my first post. As in many fantasy series (including the Wheel of Time and The Unfinished Song), magic can be used to force a person to do things against her will, including tell the truth. After Mac has spent time with a sexy Seelie prince V'lane, Barrons is furious and uses this coercion to interrogate her. [To avoid spoilers, I've elided the full quote.]

"Have the MacKeltars been spying on me?"

Squeezing my eyes shut, I said, "Yes."

"Have you been spying on me, Ms. Lane?"

"As much as I can."

...Aware that I was digging my own grave, one spadeful of information at at time, I told him....

He laughed. As if it were some kind of joke that I knew all his dark secrets. He didn't try to explain or justify one bit of it. "And I didn't think you could keep your own counsel. You knew these things and never said a word. You're becoming interesting. Are you working with the MacKeltars against me?"

"No."
In principle, since one cannot lie while under magical compulsion, there is no subtext here; in practice, however, the drift of Barron's questions, especially when it becomes clear he is jealous and worried that she has betrayed him, convey his unspoken feelings for her. The possibility that the subtext (their mutual attraction) will break out into the open drives much of the sexual and romantic tension in the scene.

While we're on the topic of magical communication, what about telepathy? It depends on the rules of the world. If one cannot lie through telepathy, then like magical truth-telling, this can be a way to insert believable obtext without being "unrealistic." If telepathy is just like speech, conducted along a private thought-to-thought channel, but still susceptible to manipulation, deceit and lies, then it can also convey subtext.

To be clear, then, when I use the term secret dialogue, I'm not talking about a plot point. The secret is intuited between readers or conveyed directly by the author to the reader.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Swann's Way, uses this later version of the technique during his satirical examination of the hapless Dr. Cottard:
Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: "Do you really mean that?"
I have a great sympathy for Dr. Cottard, I might as well admit. I often have had recourse to that same smile. Especially when people are discussing pop culture icons that I pretend to know something about but have never heard of and secretly care nothing about. However. Moving on.

"Do you really mean that?"

The unspoken reason for Dr. Cottard's smile is given here, and the question he "never dared to ask" is asked, but only in secret, a secret shared between the author and the reader. In this case, Dr. Cottard probably knows his "knowing" smile is, in truth, a smile of unknowing, but it's equally possible for an author (especially in omniscient PoV) to share with the reader a truth about a character that is unknown to the character himself.

One could say, "He laughed because he thought he got the joke, though he had missed the point entirely, and fortunately so, for it never occurred to him to ask of his so-called friends, 'Is this joke actually at my expense?'"

In this example, one has a line of a dialogue that not only doesn't occur out loud, but doesn't occur in the interior either; in fact, it doesn't occur to the character at all and it could not occur. Obviously, this only works in certain forms of PoV -- Omniscient or Distant Third. If the author were using a Close Third PoV, which is almost like First Person, then the author could not nudge the reader in this way, and the question of whether the joke was actually at the character's expense would be even more subtextual. The reader would have to infer it from the context, from the PoV of other characters, and maybe from the joke itself.

Is there anything gained by the author offering, then withdrawing, the question "Is this joke actually at my expense?" If the character is truly oblivious, perhaps not. But the author who says, "it never occurred to him to ask of his so-called friends" might be toying with the reader. The author might be suggesting: It did occur to him, or would have, if he had allowed himself to think about it. His obliviousness might have resulted less from stupidity than from self-protection. He could not ask the question because it would have already answered itself in the asking, and that answer would have been too painful to bear.

Here's my own attempt to use the same method. As in the Fever series, here Tamio "hears" both the subtext and obtext of what his friend Hadi is telling him about his chances for recovery after a fight. It's not telepathy, just intuition:


Pain forced Tamio awake. [...] Things resolved into shapes and textures: the smell of burning sheep-dung; the feel of woven wool; a wall beside the mound where he lay built up from thin sheets of orange-tinted rock. So he was in Orange Canyon, but in a spacious lodge, not a tent. Nice to know that even injured, he was coming up in the world. Wooden rafters above his head swayed in the haze of smoke. Or maybe it was his head that was still swaying.

“Am I doomed?” he asked Hadi.

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE IN HORRIBLE PAIN! Hadi’s panicked eyes informed him, while his mouth, lagging behind, formed a hoop: “Nooooo, of course not! You’ll be just fine.”

Which to believe? Tamio preferred the idea he would be fine, so he decided to go with that.

Tamio is not only aware of Hadi's deception, Tamio deliberately colludes in the unwarranted optimism.

Why is it important to include secret dialogue? Why not just present the bald lies characters tell one another and let the reader figure out if the statements are true or not? Is the writer "cheating" by presenting this counter-conversation to the reader in italics, or unvoiced quotes or annoying all-caps?

Everything depends on the author and the author's project. There is a valid purpose to secret dialogue, however, in showing human (or nonhuman) communication. Namely: this is as much how we talk to one another as what we say. We do voicelessly speak to one another, sometimes in fully formed sentences, sometimes in ways that are clear to both parties (and sometimes with a great deal of misunderstanding). This is one way that authors try to capture that (mis)communication and (missed) conversation.




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