Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Guest Post by Brandilyn Collins

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read about Tracy Sharp talking about just doing it here:http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-tracy-sharp.html

You can read about AJ Abbiati's Transliterator here:http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-aj-abbiati.html

You can read G.E. Nolly's fifty year journey as a writer here:http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-ge-nolly.html

You can read Kevin Hardman talking about Amazon ranking here:http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-kevin-hardman.html

You can read Mark Terry talking about his publishing journey here:http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-mark-terry.html

You can read Jeff Schajer talking about his thrillers here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-jeff-schajer.html

You can read Lisa Grace talk about movie options here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2013/07/guest-post-by-lisa-grace.html

Here are the upcoming scheduled blog posts, so those remaining know what dates have been taken:

7/10 Katherine Sears
7/11 Richard Denoncourt
7/12 Ann Voss Peterson
7/14 Nick Spill
7/15 Jennie Moening
7/17 Gary Ponzo
7/18 Chris Everheart
7/20 Jennie Moening
7/22 Nikki Pill
7/24 Helen Smith
7/26 Jeff Carlson
7/27 Mark Nash
7/28 Geraldine Evans
7/30 Richard Stooker
8/1 Sabrina Chase
8/2 Alan Tucker
8/3 Wayne Batson
8/5 Lara Nance
8/7 Keith Blackmore
8/10 Mary Louisa Locke
8/15 Larry Weinstein
8/17 Kay Bratt
8/22 Tim Myers
8/31 Amy Padgett
9/03 Summer Daniels
9/12 Tom Briscoe
9/30 Joan Rylen
10/4 Tom Keller
12/1 Julius St. Clair
12/12 Maia Sepp
1/10 Andrea Pearson

Now here's Brandilyn Collins...



Secret #3: Subtexting

How many times have you read a novel with dialogue that struck you as shallow or unbelievable? Much of the time this results from characters always saying exactly what they mean. I call this WYSIWYG dialogue—What You See is What You Get. (It’s also often called “on the nose” dialogue.) Problem is, continuous use of WYSIWYG dialogue does not reflect real life. People often communicate through subtexting, in which the meaning of the conversation flows below the actual words spoken. When a novelist learns how to employ subtexting effectively, dialogue that had once been lifeless and on-the-surface transforms into vibrant interchanges between characters, pulling the reader into the story.

Some authors innately know how to subtext dialogue. But many, especially new novelists, do not. So let’s unbundle the technique, showing when to use it, and how to convey the underlying meaning to readers.

Every piece of fiction, whether play or novel, short story or saga, is at heart a reflection of life’s most basic struggles—love, fear, pain, defeat, etc. In order to write dialogue that portrays these struggles convincingly, we first need to understand subtexting as it occurs in the real world. Here are a few important points:

1. Subtexting is not limited to times when one is tongue-tied or tense. It’s a common, everyday occurrence.

2. Subtexting is not limited to conversations between people who have just met. It occurs in all relationships and is equally common between friends and enemies, strangers and spouses.  

3. Sometimes entire conversations are subtexted; other times only portions are.

Imagine two friends, Liz and Sara, working together on a volunteer project. Liz becomes irritated at something Sara does and snaps at her but soon apologizes. Sara is hurt and doesn’t readily accept the apology. They say little while they continue to work. After their project is done, Liz suggests, “Want to go out for coffee? I’m buying.” But going out for coffee is a side issue. What she really means is: “Please, will you forgive me now? I’m really sorry for what I said, and I want to make it up to you by treating you to coffee.” Sara will instinctively respond within the same subtext. If she says, “Okay” or even “I can’t right now, but I’d love to later,” what she would mean is: “Yes, I’m now ready to forgive you.” But a chilled, “I don’t have time” would be a clear message that she still refuses to forgive.

What’s fascinating here is that both women engage in this surface dialogue while knowing that the other isn’t fooled one bit as to its underlying meaning. Their conversation is about coffee. But their communication is about forgiveness. 
A Deeper Look at Subtexting



“Sleep well?”


Five words spoken between man and wife. Sound mundane, boring? They are, in the form of WYSIWYG dialogue. But put your creativity to work and imagine the underlying messages these simple words could convey. Notice how your thoughts immediately shift from the words themselves to character motivation. Who are these people? What do they want? What kind of marriage do they have? Now you are thinking in a way that fleshes out your characters.

Just to show how effective subtexting can be, let’s create a scene with maximum dichotomy between the dialogue and its subtext. Using only these five innocuous words, we’ll depict a deeply flawed, abusive marriage. The conversation will be morning greetings; the communication will be about power and the need for love. 
But wait a minute. If this subtext isn’t in the dialogue itself, where will it be?  How will we convey the real communication to the reader? 

In subtexting, the real communication is artfully woven through description into the context of the conversation.

The amount of description necessary will depend on how well readers know your characters. If the scene is in the middle of a novel and involves an ongoing conflict, the general context will already be in place, and less description is necessary. But let’s raise the stakes in our example, making it the opening scene in a novel. Since readers will not know the characters at all, we’ll need to skillfully weave adequate description into the scene—without stopping the action—in order to communicate the subtext.

~ ~ ~

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

Early morning light filtered through 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 exhausted 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. 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 fear blanketed Missy’s anger. She now had more than herself to protect. Missy lowered her eyes.

~ ~ ~

Any doubt this woman’s in real trouble? Afraid, seething with repressed anger, yearning for a gentle touch, caught in the web of victimization. And the baby.  Notice how the son she’d “given” Franklin becomes “her baby” in the moment of danger. How long until this child is also abused? Franklin doesn’t seem likely to change his ways.

Yet none of this is spoken.

Let’s take a look at the dialogue again, this time with its subtext:


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.


Yeah, what do I care? That’s your place, watching the kid while I get my eight hours.

“Sleep well?” 

I’m sick of the way you treat me! How can you be so selfish, sleeping all night while I was having so much trouble!


You keep it up, Missy, you’ll be sorry. A baby in your arms ain’t gonna keep me from hitting you.

The scene does contain one more line—an unspoken one.  But the subtext is clear:

Missy lowered her eyes. 

I didn’t mean it, Franklin, please don’t hit me. I’m afraid for my baby.

Imagine this scene written with that kind of WYSIWYG dialogue. How clutzy it would feel. Readers would instinctively know it was wrong, even if they couldn’t verbalize why. People in Missy’s and Franklin’s situation just don’t talk like that.

When To Subtext

So how can you know when to subtext a scene? Not all dialogue should be subtexted; sometimes WYSIWYG exchanges are appropriate. As with so many aspects of writing fiction, there are no cut-and-dried rules. But there are some major guidelines that, when considered together, can point you in the right direction.

The first step is to observe when it occurs in real life. Once you start listening for subtexting in conversations, including your own, you’ll be amazed at how common it is. And the more familiar you become with this quirk of human nature, the better you’ll be at re-creating it. When you notice subtexting within a conversation, ask yourself these questions:

Why didn’t the first person say exactly what he was thinking? 
Why didn’t the second person?
How was I able to understand the underlying meaning?
If I were to write this scene, how would I convey its subtext?

The first two questions will teach you when to subtext in your writing.  These questions will have one of two answers:

1. The person didn’t want to state what he was thinking, or

2. The person didn’t need to state what he was thinking because the other person already knew it. 

In our scene, Missy is an example of answer number one. She doesn’t want to say what she’s thinking because she’s afraid of her husband. Franklin, on the other hand, doesn’t need to say what he’s thinking because he’s already spent months putting Missy “in her place.” He can display his power through a mere yawn or certain look, knowing Missy will meekly accept it due to her fear.

Guideline #1
One of the above two reasons must apply to a character’s motivation
in order for subtexting to be considered in your dialogue.

With this first guideline in mind, ask yourself these questions about your scene:

1. What does Character “A” want as a result of this conversation? Character “B?”

2. Is “A” willing to state what’s on her mind? Is “B?”

3. Do “A” and “B” understand the current situation well enough that they don’t need to state the obvious?

4. Is this scene a continued presentation of an ongoing conflict, or is it a major turning point for change?

The first three questions consider character motivation. As noted, if a character doesn’t want or doesn’t need to state what he’s thinking, subtexting may be appropriate. The fourth question considers the placement of the scene within your novel. 

Guideline #2
If the scene depicts an ongoing conflict, subtexting may be appropriate;
however, a major turning point for change often demands honesty.

Think ahead in Franklin’s and Missy’s story, after a surprising series of events has caused Franklin to try to change. Imagine a critical scene in which the couple speaks openly for the first time. Missy is finally able to say what she feels, telling Franklin that, after all his abuse, she doubts she can love him again even though he’s now trying to be different. At this point, the conflict within Missy shifts from the struggle to survive as a battered wife to the struggle to regain lost love for her husband. Note here a wonderful by-product of effective subtexting. The bitter honesty you save for crucial scenes will be far more intense when such openness is new to the characters.

For scenes of ongoing conflict, keep in mind:  

 Guideline #3
The older and/or deeper the conflict, the more likely that subtexting will be appropriate. 

This doesn’t mean that a small tiff can’t be subtexted, as noted in the “coffee conversation” between Liz and Sara. It does mean that ancient, deep wounds between two people often are too painful or too tiring to speak of, though the

residual effects of those wounds can seep into the subtext of everyday conversation.

How to Write Subtexted Dialogue

Before you write your own scene, study subtexting in other fiction. First, as we did with our scene, substitute the spoken words with their subtext. Then highlight all the descriptive words that conveyed this meaning to you. When you highlight these words, you’ll notice that the description tends to fall into four major areas.  These areas can most easily be remembered through the acronym TIME: Thought, Inflection, Movement, and Expression. Our scene between Missy and Franklin provides examples of each:

How could Franklin still treat her with such contempt 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.

“Morning.” Her voice was little more than a croak.

He slouched in the doorway, dismissive eyes flicking over her face, the baby.

Franklin’s mouth opened in a smirk, his chin jutting. 

When you’re ready to write your own subtexted dialogue, here are three steps to follow:

1. Write out the subtext in your scene line by line.
This exercise will firmly establish in your own mind the underlying meaning of each spoken word. Subtext must be very clear to you before you can convey it to readers.

2. Create overlying dialogue that would naturally occur in the scene. 
Again, let’s look to Missy and Franklin. That scene takes place not long after dawn. An exchange of morning greetings is a natural occurrence in that situation. In another example, if a woman is attracted to a man sitting beside her on the commuter train, she might initiate a conversation about the book he’s reading. Their discussion of two characters in the story could parallel what they are thinking about each other, and the impressions they want to create. 

3. Weave TIME descriptions around the dialogue to convey the subtext. 

A little more detail about each of these:

Thought. This doesn’t refer to italicized words that represent literal thoughts. Those quickly become tiring to the reader and should be used sparingly. Rather, it denotes a clear indication of what a character is thinking through narrative. A word of caution here, since thought is often the easiest to use. Don’t overuse it, or you will simply move all meaning from spoken word to narrative. This will negate the need for other description and will deaden your scene, “telling” your story rather than “showing” it. One way to guard against overuse of thought is to stay within one point of view per scene. Note that in our example we remained in Missy’s point of view yet always knew what Franklin was thinking, based on his actions and Missy’s interpretations.

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 how he’d spent his night.

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

Expression. Facial expression can be very effective even when a character is otherwise still. Missy’s final communication of accepting “her place” under Franklin’s abusive rule was conveyed merely through lowering her eyes. Sometimes a silent expression tells the reader far more than words.

All these guidelines and steps may have you thinking, “Good grief, with all this to do in writing dialogue, I’ll never finish my novel!” Truth is, you won’t need to follow them for long. Once you become familiar with subtexting, it will become a natural process as you write. And you’ll see how much more depth and richness it lends to your scenes. Subtexting will force you to create more description than you used when your characters always said exactly what they meant. Your dialogue will be more realistic and your characters more vibrant.


Brandilyn Collins is the author of over twenty-five traditionally published books (2 nonfiction, 23+ novels.) She is known for her trademarked Seatbelt Suspense® and contemporary novels. Brandilyn has recently turned to self-publishing exclusively. Her first indie book, That Dog Won’t Hunt, ($2.99 ebook, $9.62 paper) is a humorous and poignant look at a loving, boisterous Southern family trying to welcome the youngest son’s timid fiancĂ©e (a survivor of child abuse) into their midst at an annual reunion.

Joe sez: My books have a lot of white space in them. 

White space is all about indenting, without blocky paragraphs that take up half a page. I've also taken to avoiding chapter breaks, so readers don't have a good place to set the book down. 

I like to think I write page turners, and one of the secrets to that is pacing. Pacing is all about "what happens next" and six sentences about how majestic the sky is tends to slow down the pacing, while action and dialog speed it up.

Dialog offers many white space opportunities. When done right, it both moves the story forward by conveying needed information to other characters (and therefore the reader) while also imparting characterization, helping the reader form opinions and become invested in your characters.

Good dialog can also do a third thing: evoke emotion. Tears, fear, laughter, outrage, etc. 

If, at any time, you're doing two or more things (intentionally) with a sentence, it's probably a good sentence. String as many of them together as you can.

Some of the rules I use for effective dialog are:

1. Try to sound like people really talk. That means improper grammar when needed, speech hesitations (um, uh, elipses, em dashes), fragments. Listen to people having a real conversation. It's eye opening how incorrect it is compared to the written word.

2. Avoid infodumps. The James Bond moment where the villain reveals his secret plan is sometimes unavoidable, but when you find characters constantly explaining backstory or plot, you need to start over.

3. Show, don't tell. That goes for dialog as well as interior monologue/description. "I am angry," said Joe, who was angry. Compare that to, "Don't start, I swear..." Joe's eyes narrowed, and Frank noticed the pudgy writer had clenched both of his fists.

4. I prefer to use said instead of any other dialog attribution, but prefer to use action rather than said.

Don't: "You're dead!" Joe screamed. (Joe screamed very loudly is worse).

Better: "You're dead!" Joe jabbed his finger at me like he was going to shoot lightning from it.

Don't: "Kiss me," Joe purred seductively.

Better: "Kiss me," Joe said. He had that squinty, playful look that made my breath catch. (don't even need the said there).

5. In dialog, speaker attribution isn't necessary unless the exchange gets really long. The reader can figure out the back and forth without constantly reminding them who is speaking. If it goes on for more than five or six lines, through some action in there.

6. Remember conflict. The essence of all narrative is conflict. People at odds, with problems, pursuing different goals, have more interesting dialog than two friends getting stoned. Conflict is more than just names and threats. It's a dance, each participant trying to get what they want. 

If anyone else has some dialog tips, put them in the comments...


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful blog post! I'm working on the opening chapters of a new novel, and I was having trouble with my dialogue. These tips are perfect. Thank you!


Jude Hardin said...

Try to sound like people really talk. That means improper grammar when needed, speech hesitations (um, uh, elipses, em dashes), fragments. Listen to people having a real conversation. It's eye opening how incorrect it is compared to the written word.

Best to use all that sparingly, I think. A transcription of an actual conversation wouldn't work very well in the context of a novel, precisely because of all the speech hesitations, vernacular pronunciations, non sequitur statements, ramblings, etc.

My advice for a newbie trying to develop an ear for dialogue would be to read some authors great at it. Hemingway and Robert B. Parker come to mind.

Merrill Heath said...

Reposting. Blogger ate this the first time I posted it.

My list of authors to study for dialog: John O'Hara, Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Turrow, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker.

These offer a broad spectrum of styles, but they all do a great job of writing dialog.

J.E. Mullany said...

Thanks for this great post. We all like to think we do this naturally, but I suspect if I went through my draft with this specifically in mind I'll make a few edits.
Argh! More work!

(Thanks though.)

If this keeps up this website will be a better go-to source than any others in terms of how to improve your writing.

On a side note: How often do you, as a reader, go to a new author's website to decide if you want to buy the book. (Subtext here: Do I really really need to get off my butt and finish mine?)

See, I can learn and apply.

I.J.Parker said...

I cannot abide Robert B. Parker's dialogue. Much of it is utterly banal. Though that is probably how people like his characters actually talk.

My thought would be to use the subtext sparingly. No need to hit the reader over the head with the message that he's an abusive husband (and she's a wimp). Sorry. :) I may, of course, be wrong. Subtlety isn't always in the author's best interest.

JA Konrath said...

I once wrote a story entirely in dialog. No attribution, no narrative.

People hated it for being too disturbing. What is left unsaid is often more powerful than what is said.

Story is THE CONFESSION in my HORROR STORIES collection.

Beware! It's a rough one.


Merrill Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Merrill Heath said...

That's why I like it - it's how people like his characters actually talk. The same for Elmore Leonard. I also like the humor they both inject into their scenes through dialog.

Merrill Heath said...

The above post was in reference to Robert B. Parker's dialog. I'm not sure what's going on with my posts today. One got deleted entirely and the other only posted half of what I said.

Hollis Shiloh said...

I love writing dialogue, and it was wonderful to see this glimpse of dialogue mechanics. Thanks! :)

Jude Hardin said...

I remember Dennis Lehane stressing that it's best for characters not to refer to each other by name when engaged in dialogue.

"I don't know, Jim. Are you sure?"

"I'm telling you, Fred. It's true."

It's one way to avoid dialogue tags, but it doesn't sound natural.

And that's one of the keys to good dialogue in fiction, I think. Sounding natural without trying to mimic the way people actually talk.

Jude Hardin said...

I once wrote a story entirely in dialog. No attribution, no narrative.

If I remember correctly, it was a pain in the ass.


Jill James said...

Great dialogue tips. Eavesdropping...um, research listening is very important. Try for different dynamics; all male, all female, mixed or young vs. older. Doing that research listening in Starbuck's is awesome. Coffee and overheard conversations.

Joe Flynn said...

One of my favorite writer's of dialogue was the late Gregory Mcdonald, who wrote the Fletch series. The first paperback in the series used a passage of dialogue as its cover. Stopped me cold and hooked me right there.

J. Fields Jr. said...

Two of my favorites for dialgue are Donald Westlake's Dortmunder series, and McBain's 87th Precinct novels. Lots of characters, dozens of different speech patterns, and all distinct. And they aren't just plot fuel. Character development, motivations, humor, tone of a scene...the dialogue runs almost all of it. Aside from how McBain had the city as a character, and then his author voice was very nearly a speech pattern, too.

Alistair McIntyre said...

After reading Joe's tips at the end, I went through my latest offering and found a few stellar examples of what not to do.

Thanks for the reminder. It's so easy to slip into telling the reader what someone sounds like, instead of taking the extra step to show what someone sounds like.

Walter Knight said...


You're not mad?

No, I'm fine.


Daniel said...

Two of my favorites: George V. Higgins who wrote Cogan's Way (made into Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (I believe Mitchum was in that movie version).

Also, The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Daniel said...

I don't know if this is the place, but many of you have had dealings with KDP Select Giveaways. I am scheduled to give away LOVE THUG for three days starting midnight, Pacific time, tonight. Right now it's 3:28 EDT and the free price has not shown up. I have promised at least 300 people it would be free today. Of course, KDP select has no phone connection, only email. Has anyone else gone through this before? I am waiting because I need to fill out several forms the second the books becomes free.

Any help would be appreciated. Thanking you in advance. (My status at the sign up for the free promotion (via my Bookshelf) says my free giveaway is "in progress." Well, no, isn't.

'nuff said. Thanks for any help.


Daniel said...

Update: It took an extra one and one-half hours, but it is now up at its free price. Very frustrating. Now I have to get back to work.

Merrill Heath said...

George V. Higgins - The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a classic.

Unknown said...

Brandilyn: From experience, I know your book GETTING INTO CHARACTER works. It helped me breathe more life into my own characters. Great to see you here on this blog.

Iola said...

From the POV of a reader, good subtext turns good to great. Especially in romance, when you can see the heat building in the subtext without having to resort to cheesy lines like '"Kiss me," Joe purred seductively'.