Monday, May 2, 2011

Subtext in Dialogue

Back in 1991 I read a book that blew me away. It was hot—although Loveswept was always a hot line—sexy and full of subtext. Shortly afterward, although I don’t know if it was because of this book, a whole slew of books came out that copied its opening.

I’m paraphrasing wildly:
“It’s too big. It won’t fit.”
“Wiggle it around and push harder.”
“We need some kind of lubricant!”
“It’s moving!”
“Ouch! That hurt--I’m bleeding.”

The way the author originally had this scene, you really couldn’t tell what was going on. Just that it involved a couple and something that needed to go into a hole. Depending on your worldview, you were either totally clueless or figured you were in on the beginning of a sex scene gone wrong.

Because Loveswept was Bantam’s now defunct line of hot contemporary romances most people assumed the second. Hot romance? A man and woman? Size, lubricant and bleeding—pretty obvious the woman is a virgin. It turned out they were just trying to fix the hose on a washing machine and the woman cut her hand when the man shoved the hoses together. The thought strings (size, pushing and lubricant) and the way the author kept some information back, made the dialogue come across wrong, although it was ultimately right for the story because of what it implied.

The trouble with implication is that it only works if the author and reader have the same knowledge base. If you read the story without thought strings and out of context, you “might” realize the hero and heroine are talking about sex, although then again, you might not. Like Mae West’s famous line, “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” Subtext depends on who’s speaking, what they’re speaking about, the knowledge base of the reader and their understanding of context.

In a scene where the hero and heroine create sexual tension, it’s understood—by the reader—these two people “want” to get together, but something is stopping them. It could be that neither of them is willing to take the first step, or they already have but it’s not working out, or they can’t get together because of extenuating circumstances which means a lot of times subtext is only shared between “in” people and the reader. The hero and heroine because they share a specific knowledge base. And the reader, because of her position outside the story and knowledge that the hero and heroine are co-protagonists.

Occasionally, in a romantic suspense or thriller, subtext is shared between the reader and one person to create story tension. Something the hero or heroine “should” know, but doesn’t--the textual equivalent of a woman going down into the basement where a crazed serial killer is waiting with an ax.

Perhaps the character is a cannibal, and he’s eating women who trespass on his land. The heroine is a waitress and notices the whiteness of his smile, so she says, “My, you have gorgeous teeth.” And he says, “All the better to eat you with, my dear.”

Regardless of whether they’re both laughing, he smiles, she smiles or she pours him a free cup of coffee. The “reader” knows this guy isn’t just eyeballing her assets; he’s sizing her up for a rib roast.

The dialogue at the beginning of the post is another way to look at story tension. Although on the surface it comes across as sexual, it isn’t because only one of the participants has a specialized knowledge base. He loves her, which means everything he says to her is shaded with the subtext of his love.

When Sam Spade talks to his partner, Miles in the Maltese Falcon he uses subtext to stay in the one-up position. Instead of dialogue that implies sexual awareness or foreshadows important story events, sub-textual one-upmanship implies character.

What kind of person would say such a thing? What kind of person doesn’t notice? And if it “is” noticed, what does that say about the relationship between the two participants.

Subtext in dialog is what the characters are really saying to each other and can reveal everything from their needs and desires to their conflict and story elements.

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