Well, not everything. I learned quite a bit about dialogue from, you know, reading, writing and eavesdropping, but there are several dialogue pointers that I did pick up from time spent memorizing scripts, running lines and rehearsing scenes. And a few of those tips have translated nicely into writing fiction. So here they are.
Subtext is the dialogue beneath the dialogue. In other words, subtext is what the character really means, regardless of what he or she says.
Here’s an example.
Say Samantha, your protagonist, has just gone on a hot date with Alex. Samantha’s best friend, Simon, is all ears to hear about how things went and Samantha obliges, gushing about the greatness that is Alex. “That’s awesome,” Simon says. But then later the reader finds out that Simon has actually been in love with Samantha the entire time. So even though Simon says, “that’s awesome,” the reader comes to the understanding that he didn’t really mean it. Inside, Simon was probably feeling pretty rotten about the whole thing but putting on a brave “I’m a good friend” face. What he might have been thinking instead was probably more along the lines of, “I wish you thought I was awesome” or “I’ve missed my chance with you, haven’t I?”
A good exercise with subtext is to look at the dialogue you’ve written for a scene and, above the dialogue, write what your character would say if he or she had just been lassoed by Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth. In acting classes, we used to do this as an exercise with our scripts and this is great way to get to know your character’s true feelings and innermost thoughts.
Another good exercise is to re-watch a movie you’ve seen before and try to decipher the subtext. Any scene between Han Solo and Princess Leia would lend itself well to this exercise. Like in The Empire Strikes Back when Han is getting lowered into the freezing chamber. “I love you,” Leia says. “I know,” Han replies. Which is hilarious and heartrending all at once and so true to Han’s character. But yeah. Come on. We all know what he’s really saying there. Probably something along the lines of, “I love you too, Princess, but even though my ass is about to go into carbonite and none of us are really sure if I’ll survive, I’m still a scoundrel and I have an image to protect and I hate goodbyes anyway so see you on the flipside, toots.”
Of course, subtext can be hard for your reader to grasp initially, unless the narrative has reached a point where your readers know the character or the situation well enough to see through the dialogue to the underlying subtext. But there may be some instances where you want to be less subtle than others. In those instances, actions can sometimes help highlight subtext.
For example, say your protagonist, Jennifer, is planning to go to a concert. Her older brother, Jason, is super protective, which is something your audience may or may not know at this point in the story. Jenifer babbles on and on about how much fun she’s going to have at this concert, and how their mother and father won’t ever know she’s gone because she’s sneaking out. She tells Jason what a great older brother he is for keeping her secret.
Jason’s response could read something like this:
“Yeah,” Jason said, folding his arms. “Sounds like fun.”
There are a few clues here to show us how Jason really feels about his sister attending this concert, the biggest being the folding of his arms. This line suggests without my having to mention voice tone or facial expression that Jason is not, in fact, too jazzed with his sister’s plan.
This tactic can be great way to ratchet up sexual tension between two characters as well, especially when body language contradicts what the characters are saying.
Again, going back to Han and Leia and The Empire Strikes Back—remember the infamous scene where Leia is wrestling with equipment on the Millennium Falcon and Han comes up behind her? He wraps his arms around her, grabs her wrists and she flings him off, angry. She berates Han for calling her “Your Worship” but can’t handle it when he calls her “Leia” either. But we know she kind of digs the guy because, about four seconds later, Han is wrapping her hand with his hands, massaging her fingers, and talking about being a scoundrel. She tells him to “stop that” but her voice is soft and she doesn’t pull away and she doesn’t try to fight him off again. From there the dialogue gets quite fun and the steaminess of the scene rises. Leia is telling Han how much she is so not into him then bam they’re totally snogging and it’s a magic magic moment.
Inflection and Emphasis
In drama school, I once did an exercise where the instructor asked us to take the same three word sentence and read it three times. Each time, we were to place emphasis on a different word. And each time, the line meant something completely different.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
Though italics should be used with care and certainly not overused, it’s worthwhile to mention that inflection and emphasis can be a useful tool in dialogue scenes.
I hope these few pointers help you to dive deeper into your dialogue construction.
Have fun and break a leg!