Hot Enough?: Practicing Subtext in Dialogue

We’re having a heat wave. Temps in the mid-nineties. Heat indices well over a hundred. Cathy and I went out yesterday afternoon to do some shopping, and the volume of traffic was noticeably lower. The stores were a bit emptier. There was no waiting for a table at one of our favorite restaurants. If a city this size could ever seem like a ghost town, it came close yesterday.

The malaise of a hot day in summer always reminds me of the scene in The Great Gatsby when Tom and Daisy and Nick and Jordan decide to drive into New York City where they end up taking a suite at the Plaza Hotel. There they are in a confined space in suffocating heat. Tom has carried in a bottle of whiskey wrapped in a towel along with the tension that’s been building ever since Daisy, when making plans to come into the city, said to Gatsby, “You look so cool.” At that point, their eyes met, “. . .and they stared together at each other, alone in space. . . .‘You always look so cool,’ she repeated.” At this point, our narrator Nick Carraway makes clear the significance of this exchange: “She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.” Subtext in dialogue, particularly in a scene lacking action, is everything. The thing not said below the dialogue is the story.

The scene in the suite at the Plaza presented Fitzgerald the challenge of making inactivity interesting. At some point, every writer needs to practice creating consequence from conversation. Every writer needs to be alert to what’s almost said.

At one point, Tom tells Daisy to stop “crabbing” about the heat, to which Gatsby replies, “Why not let her alone, old sport? You’re the one that wanted to come to town.”

The topic of conversation is the heat, but just below that topic is the one just barely hidden—the reawakening of Gatsby’s and Daisy’s romance.

The scene continues with this exchange:

            “That’s a great expression of yours, isn’t it?” said Tom sharply.

            “What is?”

            “All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?”

The topic of conversation has shifted to Gatsby’s habit of calling someone “old sport,” but beneath the words is Tom’s awareness of the threat that Gatsby has brought to his marriage. The tension in the dialogue escalates when Tom says, “By the way, Mr. Gatsby, I understand you’re an Oxford man.” Again, the topic of conversation shifts to Tom’s doubt that Gatsby actually went to Oxford as he’s always claimed, but what’s really being said in the exchange that follows has more to do with Gatsby’s claim to Daisy. After Gatsby admits he was only at Oxford for five months, the real objective of Tom’s conversation rises fully to the surface when he says to Gatsby, “What kind of row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?” There we are, everything that was buried out in the open. Now the dialogue is direct about the matter at hand. the scene is now a scene of unswerving confrontation.

A hot day, a bottle of whiskey wrapped in a towel, a stifling hotel suite, and every tension the characters carry with them—such are the ingredients for a scene of dialogue that surgically works the splinter up through the skin until everyone has to confront the issue at hand.

Try it if you will. Think about what your characters carry inside them, what lies beneath the words they say to one another. Put them in a confined space and make it difficult for them to leave it. All they have is a single prop—in the case of Gatsby a bottle of whiskey wrapped in a towel. The conditions are such that they really have nothing to do—too hot, too cold, too rainy, too snowy, etc. With the possibility of significant action reduced, they have nothing to do but talk. Think about what they carry inside them—You always look so cool—that is barely contained by the words they say. Let the tension build until the subtext of the dialogue breaks through and becomes a scene of direct confrontation.

Guy Fieri, chef, restaurateur, and host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, says, “There are two different things: there’s grilling, and there’s barbecue. Grilling is when people say, ‘We’re going to turn up the heat, make it really hot and sear a steak, sear a burger, cook a chicken.’ Barbecue is going low and slow.” Sometimes a writer needs to reduce the heat of the action in a scene and go down to the flames burning just beneath the words the characters are saying. The real heat resides in the fears, resentments, insecurities, betrayals that smolder until they become a conflagration.

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