Subtexting is a powerful writing tool that isn't used enough by beginning writers. Think about all the times you've said one thing but meant another--that kind of dialogue in your novel can convey layers upon layers of powerful emotional meaning.
This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
How to Utilize Subtexting in Dialogue
Take Dialogue to a Deeper Level
Add subtlety and richness in meaning by incorporating the tricks of cross-talk in dialogue.
Subtexting, or cross-talk, is when characters say one thing but mean another.
Dialogue doesn’t always need subtexting, but it adds weighty significance to certain dialogues within the story that you might want to emphasize. It can bring emotions to light with even more power than if they were stated.
Here is a passage from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to illustrate.
Maria is engaged to Mr. Rushworth, the master of Sotherton, but she is falling for Mr. Crawford. They are at Sotherton, standing at a locked gate, and Rushworth has gone back to get the key. Maria and Mr. Crawford are not alone—Fanny is nearby. But the flirting commences, thanks to subtexting.
“And to tell you the truth,” speaking rather lower, “I do not think that I shall ever see Sotherton again with so much pleasure as I do now. Another summer will hardly improve it to me.”
Here, Crawford doesn’t complete his chain of logic—he won’t like Sotherton because in another year, Maria will marry Rushworth and be mistress of Sotherton. He doesn’t want her to marry Rushworth—but he only talks about Sotherton, leaving her to make the connection. He implies she should marry himself even though he isn’t as rich as Rushworth.
When your characters don’t complete the line of thought and leave the other character to fill in the blanks, you convey information without actually saying it.
“You are too much a man of the world not to see with the eyes of the world. (It’s acceptable for a woman to marry for money rather than for love.) If other people think Sotherton improved, I have no doubt that you will.” (But are you giving me a more emotional reason to not do as the world expects?)
Maria uses words “the world” to refer to what other people would say, in order to ask what Crawford feels. Her words are pointedly used—she is marrying Rushworth for “worldly” reasons, namely money. “Worldly circles” accept this reason. Crawford better have a reason to be objecting—that is her principle meaning.
Be judicious in the words you use to convey deeper meaning.
“You seemed to enjoy your drive here very much this morning. I was glad to see you so well entertained. (I was not.) You and Julia were laughing the whole way.” (Aren’t you after my sister Julia instead?)
Maria mentions his drive with Julia, not to talk about the drive but to introduce Julia’s name into the conversation. She speaks of the drive—an innocent topic—to convey a unspoken barb about his flirting with Julia.
If the conversation you write has already been pointed, introducing a supposedly “innocent” topic creates contrast and lets the character know that there is a deeper current. While the context is innocent, the words have a different meaning.
”But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.”
Metaphors and Double Meanings
Earlier, Maria uses “Sotherton” when in reality, she means herself. Here, she talks about “getting out” which could mean through the locked gate—but she means out of the engagement.
Have characters speak of things metaphorically, call things by other names, and utilize double meanings and double entendres to convey different meaning than what they actually say.
Utilize a writing prompt and write dialogue that talks about one thing on the surface, but is talking about something else underneath. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at subtexting.