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.

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