Context and subtext in dialogue: Creating layered speech

From Now Novel:

Context and subtext in dialogue helps us read place, emotion, motivation and more in speech. Use this guide to context and subtext in dialogue to write communication that comes alive in spoken and unspoken cues.

What is subtext in conversation? Definition and types

‘Subtext’ is what lies ‘beneath’ the text (sub- meaning ‘beneath’ as in ‘submarine’ or ‘substandard’). In other words, subtext is the underlying motivations, feelings, meanings – what isn’t explicitly stated.

For example, the dialogue tag and action in this example suggest that Martin’s feelings contradict what he’s saying:

“What an amazing day,” Martin said, his affect flat, as he threw himself down to lie on the couch, hoping she’d caught the sarcasm.

The motivational subtext to this dialogue might be that Martin wants someone to notice he’s had a bad day.

The emotional subtext in Martin’s sarcasm suggests frustration, angst. Perhaps the desire to vent or for someone to help him feel better.

What are different types of subtext? Read six types below.

Keep reading for eight types of context in dialogue, too, plus examples of both subtext and context from books.

Why is subtext in conversation important?

Subtext in dialogue is important because:

  1. Subtext helps to avoid on-the-nose dialogue. Real communication doesn’t all happen on the surface, in direct statements or questions and answers. People read tone, body language and other ‘sub-‘ layers of communication to understand feeling, inference, shifts and changes
  2. Subtext makes dialogue feel alive. For example, gestures in dialogue supply a sense of attitude and personality. See Lily’s mother running her finger over a surface to check for dust in the example section below (suggesting a critical nature).
  3. Subtext aids tension and ambiguity. Inference (such as in Martin implying he’s had a bad day in the example above) creates tension and ambiguity. Often there’s something more than exactly what’s being said going on.

Types of subtext in dialogue

Read definitions of six types of subtext in dialogue:

What is emotional subtext in conversation?

The unsaid emotions (e.g. anger, joy, fear) which dialogue conveys via tone, gestures, facial expressions, body language, movement.

What is motivational subtext?

The inference of what a character wants, their reason to speak. For example, a character who says ‘You know you’re my favorite person, right?’ They might be buttering someone up to ask a favor.

What is power subtext?

In dialogue, subtextual aspects that suggest power are signs of dynamics such as submission, dominance, control, passivity. Who’s in the driver’s seat, or are the power dynamics balanced?

What is cultural subtext?

Unspoken cultural (or subcultural) elements that inform conversation. For example, how a kid familiar with lingo from the video game Among Us may say something’s ‘sus’ to their parents, meaning ‘suspicious’.

What is personal subtext?

Personal subtext in conversation is a speaker’s private history, experiences or backstory. It’s the way these elements shape how a person speaks, responds.

What is psychological subtext?

The psychological subtext of conversation refers to psychological processes in dialogue (such as projection – e.g., calling someone a liar when feeling bad about having lied).

Link to the rest at Now Novel

3 thoughts on “Context and subtext in dialogue: Creating layered speech”

  1. Actress Lilia Skala used to cut up her scripts and paste them onto pages of a three-ring binder. On the left side, she would paste the actual script. And on the right, corresponding to each line, she would write out in long hand the subtext of the character at that moment. That way, she could readily work on both the lines and blocking, but also her character’s intentions, while rehearsing.

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