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What is the Subtext of a Dialogue?

We go on into our Dialogue Series, concentrating on a technique we do not have to take for granted: the subtext of a dialogue.

It is something that appears very frequently in narration and dialogues in general. It has something to do with non-verbal language.

As with every narration technique, it also has two essential functions for the story.

What is the subtext of a dialogue?

The subtext of dialogue is the meaning beneath the surface meaning. In other words, it is the meaning that is hidden behind words.

In everyday life, it often happens to interpret the real meaning of an answer. Think about a message from a friend or an e-mail from our boss. Sometimes, we need to linger a bit more on them, thinking about the real meaning of these lines. Is everything crystal clear, or is there a different truth between words?

How to use subtext in a dialogue

In narration, through dialogues, there are different ways to add a subtext.

  • Contradictions. It consists of creating a contradiction in the dialogue. For example, when a character says he is hungry, but he just ate a salad for lunch. In the first part of the sentence, it may come to our mind that he feels like eating something delicious, like a dish of pasta or a hamburger. Certainly, we do not think of a salad as healthy and not so satisfying.
  • Silence. It is realized when someone does not answer a question in a dialogue. The dialogue may end with the character looking out the window or simply with silence. Often, suspension points can be used.
  • Opposite. This is when characters say the opposite of what they think. During the story, we know their attitude, dislikes and likes, and we remain surprised when they express an entirely different idea from what we expect.
  • Gestures. Also, gestures are essential in dialogue, so words need to describe them well. Let’s take the example of a woman who always says that touching hair during a conversation is very impolite, but this is the first thing she usually does. Gestures, in this case, are inconsistent with a character’s words.

The two main functions of subtext in a dialogue

Subtext has two main functions in narration.

The first one is to produce tension between characters. It is clear that when we have elements like the ones we explained in the previous paragraph, we can foresee some embarrassment between characters.

The second function is to engage the reader and make the story more interesting. As we have already said, when we expect a particular answer or reaction from characters, we are surprised to see that they act differently.

If you know why someone is doing what they’re doing, why they’re behaving the way they are, then that’s your job to reveal that, and often that’s situational. The storytelling does that, and then some of it’s your job as an actor to make that subtext come to life.

Cate Blanchett

Use bibisco character development software to add a subtext in a dialogue

Adding a subtext to dialogues is not as simple as it seems. To do this effectively, you need to know your characters very well.

The character development software can help you deeply understand your characters and realize dialogues with this helpful technique.

Thanks to this, you can add tension to anything in a scene or dialogue, and your reader will be more involved and surprised.

bibisco's main character's section - What is the Subtext of a Dialogue?
bibisco’s main character’s section


Do you have ever thought about what is hidden beneath a dialogue?

Dialogue is not just composed of words but also concealed meanings: they have an essential role in catching the reader’s attention.

For this reason, the subtext is an excellent technique to use in your story.

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