How to Write Subtext in Dialogue
Part 5 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Good dialogue comes down to five factors:
1. Advances the plot.
2. Accurately represents characters.
3. Mimics realism.
5. Offers subtext.
These are also pretty much the “levels” in which we master dialogue. When we start out learning to write, our main concern is that the dialogue helps us tell the story. That’s the White Belt of Dialogue. Along the way, we start mastering the other levels, until finally we arrive at our Black Belt examination: Learning how to write subtext in dialogue.
Think of subtextual dialogue as the secret initiation rite of writing. It opens up a door to a whole new mansion of storytelling possibilities—everything from subtlety to irony to thematic significance. Even better, subtext helps you further refine each of the previous four levels of dialogue.
Ready to level up?
What Does Captain America: The First Avenger Have to Say About Dialogue?
Welcome to Part 5 of our ongoing series exploring the pros and cons of Marvel’s storytelling within its cinematic universe. With the exception of Iron Man, none of Marvel’s Phase One films are sincerely good movies in and of themselves. But, personally, I’ve enjoyed every single one of them, and First Avenger is probably my favorite. Mostly, this is for subjective and personal reasons:
- It’s a historical story set during World War II, so I was already half-enchanted by it before it even came out.
- It has steampunk sensibilities.
- It’s Captain America. (After Winter Soldier came out, I mused, in all sincerity, to someone I know that, after much thought, I’d finally concluded I liked the Captain America character best of all the Avengers. She burst out laughing in my face. Apparently, this was not a surprise.)
Steve Rogers isn’t a flashy character. He isn’t anywhere near as stylish, interesting, or entertaining as Tony Stark. But the very fact that such a straightforward, gee-whiz-golly do-gooder can be presented as a character every bit as compelling, relatable, and thought-provoking is a testament to the strength of the writing. He has become the cornerstone character of the entire cinematic universe, and his sequels are unquestionably the strongest entries in the series.
Now, First Avenger isn’t quite as clean cut as its hero. It makes some major missteps structurally in the second half—most notably, in completely skipping its Second Pinch Point (which dominoes into problems in the Third Plot Point and Climax—which many people complained felt like a new story unto itself, designed specifically to set up The Avengers).
It’s not a daring or innovative movie; it’s conservative in its storytelling and all its beats. Its villain is both a little too evil and a little too easily overcome. And none of its action sequences are particularly memorable. (It does get points, though, for introducing one of the series’ most enduring and interesting female characters in Peggy Carter.)
With all that said, however, one of the reasons First Avenger works as well as it does in laying the groundwork for everything to follow is because it presents some very nice dialogue techniques throughout. Today, let’s take a look at a few of my favorite examples and how you can use them to learn how to write subtext in dialogue.
Rule #1: Don’t Say What You Mean
Subtext is all about what isn’t said. When writing dialogue, our first impulse is often to spell out exactly what’s on the characters’ minds. “I’m so mad at you right now!” or “I love you!” or “My backstory Ghost is making me so miserable and messed up. Whaaa!” (Don’t laugh. It’s done all the time.)
Try This: Go through every conversation in your manuscript and identify the point. What is the one thing the characters are wanting to say? Underline any place where they actually spell it out in on-the-nose dialogue. Now try to come up with a way to say the same thing without saying it—by coming at it sideways, by saying the exact opposite, or by implying it through body language or narrative.
Like This: One of my all-time favorite dialogue exchanges anywhere is the bar scene late in the movie, when Peggy’s red dress gets everyone’s attention. She walks up to Steve and his newly rescued pal Bucky, who immediately starts flirting with her. Steve doesn’t say a word. The entire exchange is between Peggy and Bucky—but the subtext is all about what Peggy and Stevereally want to say to each other. Instead of an on-the-nose exchange in which Steve says, “Hey, we should be a couple and go out after the war,” this little gem is what we get instead:
Peggy [to Steve]: I see your top squad is prepping for duty.
Bucky: You don’t like music?
Peggy: I do, actually. I might even, when this is all over, go dancing.
Bucky: Then what are we waiting for?
Peggy: The right partner. [leaves]
Bucky [to Steve]: I’m invisible. I’m turning into you. It’s a horrible dream.
Rule #2: Bring Dialogue Full Circle
Say something once and it means exactly what it means. Say it twice and it begins to take on new, even iconic, meanings. Snippets of dialogue that can be repeated at crucial junctures can frame the entire story and bring it full circle thematically.
Try This: See if you can identify dialogue in the beginning of your story that can be taken at face value—and then repeated later on in another situation, where its meaning is doubled thanks to the subtext of the first iteration.
Like This: First Avenger uses this technique several times, notably with the “right partner” line from the example above. In that scene, Peggy is repeating an earlier statement of Steve’s, in which he indicated what he was looking for in a romantic relationship. Her return to the same line of dialogue here allows her, in essence, to provide a direct response to his earlier statement withoutits being on the nose, as it would have been had she immediately responded in the initial scene.
Other repeated lines are Steve’s catchphrase “I could do this all day” (as he’s getting the stuffing beat out of him) and his earnest inquiry, “Is this a test?”
Rule #3: Surprise Me
Subtext (and humor) arises out of the dichotomy between the expected and the unexpected. When a character responds in a way readers don’t expect, the result is inevitably both amusing and enlightening.
Try This: Look for areas in your dialogue exchanges where one character asks another character a straight-up question with an obvious answer. What would happen if you switched out the answer for something less obvious and on-the-nose?
Perhaps the second character misunderstands (deliberately or not). Or perhaps he responds sarcastically or ironically. Perhaps he lies. Perhaps he just plain ducks the question because he doesn’t want to answer it. All of these options present interesting possibilities for entertaining dialogue that actually says more about your characters than most straight-up answers ever could.
Like This: Cap is a pretty straightforward guy himself, so this technique isn’t used overmuch in this movie. However, his misunderstanding of Howard Stark’s “fondue” invitation to Peggy is humorous, while doing double duty in speaking to his romantic interest in her (“So you two? Do you? Fondue?”). It’s followed up in subsequent scenes that, again, allow the dialogue to be abouttheir relationship without actually spelling it out.
We also have the humorous moment when the obviously German Dr. Erskine reacts to Steve’s inquiry about his origins by ingenuously responding, “Queens. 73rd Street and Utopia Parkway.”
Rule #4: Understatement and Irony
Sometimes when you need a character to be clear about what he’s saying, you can still avoid on-the-nose dialogue by employing understatement or irony. When this kind of dialogue is done well, readers always understand exactlywhat the character means, but they also get a little extra bang for their buck thanks to the subtlety of the delivery.
Try This: Look for exchanges where characters make absolute statements. (“I’m a three-time world champion.” “She dumped me.” “This is the best restaurant.”) Now brainstorm ways to slant these statements using understatement or irony.
Like This: Steve’s first big (unauthorized) mission has him rescuing captured Allied soldiers from a Hydra base. His outfit and methods immediately mark him as unorthodox. One of the soldiers asks incredulously, “You know what you’re doing?” There are two obvious answers to this. Steve could either have offered the expected and comforting lie, “Yes.” Or he could have told the truth about being a “dancing monkey” with zero combat experience.
Instead, he tells a different truth with a totally different subtextual meaning. He pauses, then says nonchalantly, “Yeah. I knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.” It’s a delightful bit of irony that speaks to his inexperience without admitting to it, while also slyly referencing his true ability, since the only reason he was knocking out Hitler in the stage show was because he’s a one-of-a-kind super soldier. That’s four layers of meaning in one simple line.
The truth is this: there’s a different dialogue technique for just about any situation you can dream up in your story. But the same five rules (mentioned at the top of this post) apply in all of them. If you can master Level 5—the art of how to write subtext in dialogue—you’ll lift your story and your writing to an entirely new plane.