Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

In dialogue, what is subtext?

Subtext is the meaning beneath the dialogue; what the speaker really means, even though he’s not saying it directly. As humans, we often don’t articulate our thoughts exactly. We’re thinking on our feet as we talk, processing other stimuli, like body language, and struggling with our own concerns and emotions as well as those of the listener. In fiction, this kind of miscommunication can add authenticity, create dramatic tension, and even reveal deeper truths.

Dorothy Parker’s short story “Here We Are” follows a newlywed couple—married two hours and twenty-six minutes—during the train ride to their honeymoon in New York. They’ve argued on the trip and the young bride is upset because she thought things would be different once they were married. The husband responds, his dialogue strong with subtext:

“Well, you see, sweetheart,” he said, “we’re not really married yet. I mean. I mean—well, things will be different afterwards. Oh, hell. I mean, we haven’t been married very long.”
“No,” she said.
“Well, we haven’t got much longer to wait now,” he said. “I mean—well, we’ll be in New York in about twenty minutes. Then we can have dinner, and sort of see what we feel like doing. Or I mean. Is there anything special you want to do tonight?”
“What?” she said.
“What I mean to say,” he said, “would you like to go to a show or something?”
“Why, whatever you like,” she said. “I sort of didn’t think people went to theaters and things on their—I mean, I’ve got a couple of letters I simply must write. Don’t let me forget.”
“Oh,” he said. “You’re going to write letters tonight?”

On the surface, they’re discussing their arrival in New York and plans for the evening—maybe a show or writing letters—but the topic they’re really broaching isn’t once mentioned directly. The event that he thinks is supposed to change everything—sex—still hasn’t happened yet. His true thoughts pierce through the mundane surface topics to reveal a better understanding of his character and this couple’s relationship.

Certainly the husband’s dialogue gives the reader a strong indication of what he really means in “Here We Are.” In fact, he almost says it before stopping himself with the repeated phrase, “I mean.” Subtext, however, can be submerged even deeper in dialogue. In this scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Daisy, already married to Tom, visits the mansion of Gatsby, her long lost love, for the first time after he’s acquired the wealth that is so important to her. Gatsby shows Daisy his shirts:

“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft, rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

Daisy isn’t really talking about—or weeping over—the shirts from England. Her strong emotional reaction comes from the excitement of Gatsby having the proper wealth, and perhaps remorse over the complexity of the situation; he is finally a man she could marry, but she is already wed to Tom. This seemingly simple conversation about shirts contains a great deal of information and emotion. Subtext has the power to take an innocuous subject and open it up to profound meaning.