Say It Without Saying It: Thoughts on Subtext

pear behind back
I’ve been thinking about how to write better dialogue a lot lately, and looking for insight, I turned to Deborah Tannen who writes popular books on linguistics. She claims that in every conversation two people try to balance their need for connection against maintaining their power in the relationship. As Tannen says, it’s all about intimacy versus control.
When writers craft characters, we use dialogue to reveal who they are, and to build or break their relationships with other characters. And our characters use dialogue to get what they want or need. Again, intimacy versus control.
As people juggle intimacy and control in real life conversations, they often avoid being direct. They speak indirectly so they can say what they want to say, but dodge conflict and hopefully, keep their relationships intact.
So it makes sense that dialogue engages us through subtext or “the conversation beneath the conversation.”
The idea of subtext sounds intimidating and abstract, but we use it every day when we inject humor to deflect or redirect a conversation we’d rather not have, or to approach someone when we’re afraid we’ll be rejected.
Through sarcasm we can assert power or express our unwillingness to go down without a fight.
We use metaphor or story-telling to tell someone a truth they need to hear, but to try to minimize the pain.
We forge connection through in jokes or a shared language (think “Okay.” “Okay.” in The Fault in Our Stars.)
And linked to that, we try to build or reconstruct bonds with remembrances of a shared experience.
We hold onto control when we change the subject or answer a different question than what we were asked.
And subtext is present when we attack something unrelated to the real reason we’re angry.
Silence gives us the power to reveal acquiescence or disagreement, while innuendo expresses truths we don’t dare say directly.
man hiding face
And gesture is our truest form of speech, especially when it contradicts what is said.
I offer up these examples to spark your thinking about subtext, and the push-pull between intimacy and control. If our goal is to write dialogue that is unexpected, subtext is a great place to explore.
Catherine Linka is the author of the two book series, A Girl Called Fearless. For more of her thoughts on writing, visit