Context and Subtext: Making Dialogue Count
Last night, Cathy and I were driving up I-71 on our way into Columbus for a holiday party, and she was whistling “Let It Snow.”
She stopped and said, “When you whistle, do you blow out, or do you suck in?”
“I blow out,” I said, “but when I first learned to whistle, I sucked in.”
We rode along in silence for a while. Then I said, “I could never whistle with a blade of grass between my thumbs.”
“I couldn’t do that either,” she said, “and I never learned how to whistle with my fingers in my mouth.”
I knew what she was talking about—that sharp, high-pitched whistle men used to hail cabs in old movies.
“Nope,” I said.
And there we were, having one of those mundane conversations that couples often have—just a way to pass time while watching the scenery pass by, just something to do until you get where you’re going. A conversation without significance or consequence. Hardly a conversation that would merit inclusion in a narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction. Just two people talking about whistling. The dialogue lacks what any good scene must have: context and subtext.
Any scene in a narrative has to have some stakes attached to it; otherwise, it’s just talking. Applying my imagination to the conversation about whistling, and making an effort to turn Cathy and me into characters, I’d have to manufacture a history for these two people, whom I’ll now call, Dixie and Stuart. Let’s say Stuart is a bookish type and one to avoid conflict at all costs. Let’s say Dixie secretly wishes he’d be more assertive. Maybe a few days before the trip up I-71, Stuart had a chance to defend Dixie, but he didn’t. Maybe someone said something condescending to her, insultingly so, but she, unlike Stuart, wasn’t aware of the insult. He could have said something, but he chose to remain silent. He spent the rest of the day brooding over the fact that he’d failed her. In fact, during this drive, he’s still brooding about that, wondering exactly what kind of man he is. If we know this from being in Stuart’s point of view, we can rewrite the original dialogue in a way that makes it sharper—that gives it weight and consequence.
Feel free to give it a try, or, if you wish, eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. Allow your imagination to give the conversation context and subtext. Think about what’s not being said underneath all that is said. Think about how the conversation becomes scene-worthy by connecting to something of consequence in the main character’s life. Words are just words until a writer gives them a reason to matter.
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