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Subtext in dialogue

Subtext in dialogue

Excerpted from Gotham Writers at

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.

Here’s a sample of a conversation between a newlywed couple, written by Dorothy Parker.

See if you can see what the husband is thinking about but not saying!

“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?”


Write a scene in which the dialogue appears to be about one thing on the surface, but is really about something else. 

How do you communicate that to the audience? Get them to read between the lines! Try to do this through dialogue, not relying on action or situation.

Download the challenge here.

“The Choice” writing challenge

“The Choice” writing challenge

Characters are defined by the choices they make. And often, a character’s bad choice kicks off act two of a feature screenplay.

As they say: “Bad choices make good stories.”

Another wise man, Aristotle, had this to say: “Character is revealed in choice: character is the habit of moral choice when the choice isn’t obvious.”


Write a scene (or expand to a short script) where a character must make a choice. It can be major (whether or not to take revenge) or seemingly minor (ketchup or mustard).

I say “seemingly” minor because if it’s just whether to have ketchup or mustard on one’s hot dog, there may not be obvious repercussions. Try to frame the choice so it has meaning to the situation you’re writing.

What goes into your character making that decision? What in their backstory has lead them to this decision? What events does this choice kick off? Who else is affected by this choice?

“In the Bedroom” Writing Challenge

“In the Bedroom” Writing Challenge

From Screenwriters Toolkit

Two people are in bed. A siren or alarm is heard. Or the phone rings. Or a doorbell.


Ask yourself:

  • Who are these people
  • Who are they to each other?
  • What are the immediate circumstances?
  • How does the alarm affect them?
  • What do they do?
  • Are they at cross-purposes? How so?

Place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Download the PDF: In The Bedroom Exercise

“Tarantino” Writing Challenge

“Tarantino” Writing Challenge

From Screenwriters Toolkit

1) Choose two businesses at random. Move two characters from Point A to
Point B by whatever means you invent. Invent a good reason for the
journey. Reveal that intent skillfully. If it’s huge, understate it. If it’s trivial,

2) Pick one of the following topics and write a dialogue scene between those
two characters, exploring and disputing the topic fully.

  • Standard shift vs. automatic transmission
  • Leaf blowers
  • Teeth
  • Class seating on airplanes
  • Vegetarianism
  • Paying for cable TV
  • Burning CDs
  • Any other mundane topic in the world.

As in every good scene, use the interchange not only to explore the issue,
but in doing so, reveal who the characters are, individually and in their
relationship to each other.

3) Orchestrate part 2 into part 1 and write a sequence of scenes.

Dowload the PDF: Tarantino Exercise

“Fill in the Gaps” Writing Challenge

“Fill in the Gaps” Writing Challenge

Using the given script, write one scene that features a character that is off screen while the rest of the movie is going on.

For example, Rocky and Adrian have a scene together. Adrian leaves and we follow Rocky for a few scenes. Then we meet up with Adrian again. What did Adrian do in the meantime? Who would she talk to?

This is a chance to write with existing characters. You don’t have to do much world building. You’re focusing on writing character, but also the craft of formatting action, dialogue, description, phone calls, etc.

Download the PDF: Fill in the Gaps exercise

Download the Rocky screenplay: rocky-1976.pdf