How To Craft Dimensional Dialogue

How to Write Subtext in Dialogue

How To Craft Dimensional DialoguePart 5 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Good dialogue comes down to five factors:

1. Advances the plot.

2. Accurately represents characters.

3. Mimics realism.

4. Entertains.

5. Offers subtext.

These are also pretty much the “levels” in which we master dialogue. When we start out learning to write, our main concern is that the dialogue helps us tell the story. That’s the White Belt of Dialogue. Along the way, we start mastering the other levels, until finally we arrive at our Black Belt examination: Learning how to write subtext in dialogue.

Think of subtextual dialogue as the secret initiation rite of writing. It opens up a door to a whole new mansion of storytelling possibilities—everything from subtlety to irony to thematic significance. Even better, subtext helps you further refine each of the previous four levels of dialogue.

Ready to level up?

What Does Captain America: The First Avenger Have to Say About Dialogue?

Welcome to Part 5 of our ongoing series exploring the pros and cons of Marvel’s storytelling within its cinematic universe. With the exception of Iron Man, none of Marvel’s Phase One films are sincerely good movies in and of themselves. But, personally, I’ve enjoyed every single one of them, and First Avenger is probably my favorite. Mostly, this is for subjective and personal reasons:

  • It’s a historical story set during World War II, so I was already half-enchanted by it before it even came out.

Captain America First Avenger World War II

  • It has steampunk sensibilities.

Captain America First Avenger Red Skull Steampunk Car

  • It’s Captain America. (After Winter Soldier came out, I mused, in all sincerity, to someone I know that, after much thought, I’d finally concluded I liked the Captain America character best of all the Avengers. She burst out laughing in my face. Apparently, this was not a surprise.)
3-31-16 Garret Amerson Gift Captain America Stickers

One of you just might have sent me Captain America stickers. 😉

Steve Rogers isn’t a flashy character. He isn’t anywhere near as stylish, interesting, or entertaining as Tony Stark. But the very fact that such a straightforward, gee-whiz-golly do-gooder can be presented as a character every bit as compelling, relatable, and thought-provoking is a testament to the strength of the writing. He has become the cornerstone character of the entire cinematic universe, and his sequels are unquestionably the strongest entries in the series.

Now, First Avenger isn’t quite as clean cut as its hero. It makes some major missteps structurally in the second half—most notably, in completely skipping its Second Pinch Point (which dominoes into problems in the Third Plot Point and Climax—which many people complained felt like a new story unto itself, designed specifically to set up The Avengers).

Captain America Howling Commandoes

It’s not a daring or innovative movie; it’s conservative in its storytelling and all its beats. Its villain is both a little too evil and a little too easily overcome. And none of its action sequences are particularly memorable. (It does get points, though, for introducing one of the series’ most enduring and interesting female characters in Peggy Carter.)

With all that said, however, one of the reasons First Avenger works as well as it does in laying the groundwork for everything to follow is because it presents some very nice dialogue techniques throughout. Today, let’s take a look at a few of my favorite examples and how you can use them to learn how to write subtext in dialogue.

Rule #1: Don’t Say What You Mean

Subtext is all about what isn’t said. When writing dialogue, our first impulse is often to spell out exactly what’s on the characters’ minds. “I’m so mad at you right now!” or “I love you!” or “My backstory Ghost is making me so miserable and messed up. Whaaa!” (Don’t laugh. It’s done all the time.)

Try This: Go through every conversation in your manuscript and identify the point. What is the one thing the characters are wanting to say? Underline any place where they actually spell it out in on-the-nose dialogue. Now try to come up with a way to say the same thing without saying it—by coming at it sideways, by saying the exact opposite, or by implying it through body language or narrative.

Like This: One of my all-time favorite dialogue exchanges anywhere is the bar scene late in the movie, when Peggy’s red dress gets everyone’s attention. She walks up to Steve and his newly rescued pal Bucky, who immediately starts flirting with her. Steve doesn’t say a word. The entire exchange is between Peggy and Bucky—but the subtext is all about what Peggy and Steve really want to say to each other. Instead of an on-the-nose exchange in which Steve says, “Hey, we should be a couple and go out after the war,” this little gem is what we get instead:

Peggy [to Steve]: I see your top squad is prepping for duty.
Bucky: You don’t like music?
Peggy: I do, actually. I might even, when this is all over, go dancing.
Bucky: Then what are we waiting for?
Peggy: The right partner. [leaves]
Bucky [to Steve]: I’m invisible. I’m turning into you. It’s a horrible dream.

Captain America First Avenger Bar Scene Peggy Red Dress

Rule #2: Bring Dialogue Full Circle

Say something once and it means exactly what it means. Say it twice and it begins to take on new, even iconic, meanings. Snippets of dialogue that can be repeated at crucial junctures can frame the entire story and bring it full circle thematically.

Try This: See if you can identify dialogue in the beginning of your story that can be taken at face value—and then repeated later on in another situation, where its meaning is doubled thanks to the subtext of the first iteration.

Like This: First Avenger uses this technique several times, notably with the “right partner” line from the example above. In that scene, Peggy is repeating an earlier statement of Steve’s, in which he indicated what he was looking for in a romantic relationship. Her return to the same line of dialogue here allows her, in essence, to provide a direct response to his earlier statement without its being on the nose, as it would have been had she immediately responded in the initial scene.

Other repeated lines are Steve’s catchphrase “I could do this all day” (as he’s getting the stuffing beat out of him) and his earnest inquiry, “Is this a test?”

Rule #3: Surprise Me

Subtext (and humor) arises out of the dichotomy between the expected and the unexpected. When a character responds in a way readers don’t expect, the result is inevitably both amusing and enlightening.

Try This: Look for areas in your dialogue exchanges where one character asks another character a straight-up question with an obvious answer. What would happen if you switched out the answer for something less obvious and on-the-nose?

Perhaps the second character misunderstands (deliberately or not). Or perhaps he responds sarcastically or ironically. Perhaps he lies. Perhaps he just plain ducks the question because he doesn’t want to answer it. All of these options present interesting possibilities for entertaining dialogue that actually says more about your characters than most straight-up answers ever could.

Like This: Cap is a pretty straightforward guy himself, so this technique isn’t used overmuch in this movie. However, his misunderstanding of Howard Stark’s “fondue” invitation to Peggy is humorous, while doing double duty in speaking to his romantic interest in her (“So you two? Do you? Fondue?”). It’s followed up in subsequent scenes that, again, allow the dialogue to be about their relationship without actually spelling it out.

Captain America First Avenger Fondue

We also have the humorous moment when the obviously German Dr. Erskine reacts to Steve’s inquiry about his origins by ingenuously responding, “Queens. 73rd Street and Utopia Parkway.”

Rule #4: Understatement and Irony

Sometimes when you need a character to be clear about what he’s saying, you can still avoid on-the-nose dialogue by employing understatement or irony. When this kind of dialogue is done well, readers always understand exactly what the character means, but they also get a little extra bang for their buck thanks to the subtlety of the delivery.

Try This: Look for exchanges where characters make absolute statements. (“I’m a three-time world champion.” “She dumped me.” “This is the best restaurant.”) Now brainstorm ways to slant these statements using understatement or irony.

Like This: Steve’s first big (unauthorized) mission has him rescuing captured Allied soldiers from a Hydra base. His outfit and methods immediately mark him as unorthodox. One of the soldiers—Dum-Dum Dugan—asks incredulously, “You know what you’re doing?” There are two obvious answers to this. Steve could either have offered the expected and comforting lie, “Yes.” Or he could have told the truth about being a “dancing monkey” with zero combat experience.

Instead, he tells a different truth with a totally different subtextual meaning. He pauses, then says nonchalantly, “Yeah. I knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.” It’s a delightful bit of irony that speaks to his inexperience without admitting to it, while also slyly referencing his true ability, since the only reason he was knocking out Hitler in the stage show was because he’s a one-of-a-kind super soldier. That’s four layers of meaning in one simple line.

Captain America First Avenger Knocking Out Hitler

The truth is this: there’s a different dialogue technique for just about any situation you can dream up in your story. But the same five rules (mentioned at the top of this post) apply in all of them. If you can master Level 5—the art of how to write subtext in dialogue—you’ll lift your story and your writing  to an entirely new plane.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about why one of The Avengers‘ greatest achievements is its vivid interpersonal conflict.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your favorite trick for how to write subtext in dialogue? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m never surprised when I visit this blog and find yet another top-notch article.

    Hasn’t anyone ever told you predictable was boring? 😉

    Thank you!

  2. Samantha says:

    Martha Williamson’s Signed Sealed Delivered series has a lot of dialog with double meaning. Characters use a conversation about someone else as a way to convey their own feelings. Or they’ll be talking about a plot specific problem, while also hinting at a deeper, more personal concern.

    I think the more sensitive, or personal the topic, the more need for subtlety. It’s hard to be completely frank, so why would are characters be? Plus it’s way more fun to read between the lines.

    Now if I can only implement this technique in my own writing. This post gives me a great start, though. I feel well-armed for the task. Thanks so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds excellent! I’ll have to check it out. I know I’m in the hands of a good author when the dialogue is deep.

  3. This is the one thing I struggle with. I’m so lucky – agents have said they love the premise of my WIP, my narration is great, etc. But I have to be more subtle in my dialogue. I am intrigued by your tip #1 – Don’t Say What You Mean. I am doing a second edit, looking for ways to be more subtle. (And I’m sure I’ll be doing a third one, after reading this article). At some point though, doesn’t someone have to say something they mean? How can a story progress if no one says what’s on their mind? I get stuck on this. My son thinks this is difficult for me because I was a journalist for a long while and am very straightforward with everyone.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two ways. One, as long as the meaning is clear, even seemingly obscure dialogue can move the plot (as do all the examples in this post).

      Two, you’re right, sometimes the characters *do* have to come right out and say what they mean. But these instances are all the more powerful for the subtext leading up them. I talk about one of my favorite examples of this in the article at the bottom of this eletter.

  4. Max Woldhek says:

    There was one part in The First Avenger that was really icky to me: Peggy shooting at Steve. Sure, she aimed at the shield, but seriously? Unloading a deadly weapon at someone you’re not even in a relationship with (not that that would have been a mitigating factor) because someone else kissed them? Additionally, let’s switch the genders around, and imagine that Percy Carter is shooting at Stella Rogers for the same “offense.” Not so funny now is it? Some creepy subtext all over that scene.

  5. Tom Younjohn says:

    On the nose!

  6. ElizaBeth Gillilan says:

    Firstly, I love your new series! Thank you so much for writing it! I stumbled across your first installment last week and eagerly read all of them, only to discover that my favorite, Captain America, wasn’t yet released. Needless to say, the wait was worth it! Dialogue is my favorite part of any story, and I am always looking for ways to improve it in my own writing. These were really great tips, and I’m going to go through my WIP and integrate them all. Thanks again, and I love your blog!

  7. First, thank you for your tireless effort to teach the art of writing. I for one have learned so much.

    I am working on a manuscript that is a sequel to a short Christmas story. The first part should be out late summer or early fall. We haven’t gotten to the proof stage yet. I asked you a question by e-mail a while back about, POV. I thought over what you said, and I finally went with your gut feelings on the matter. I am glad I did. It is working out very well. Thanks!

    Now about subtext. Here is an exchange in my present story.

    Jim looked at my left hand and broke out into a big grin and said, “Is that what I think it is?”

    “You coming to the wedding?” I said turning to the stove.

    In my past books and in this one, I have used body language in the mix of dialogue. Is this good or bad for the subtext and the story as a whole, does it create a void in the story? Can you get away with body language with no response?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Body language is admittedly harder to convey in a book than in a movie, but, yes, you can definitely use it to great effect in the right situation. The trick is coming up with evocative and (when appropriate) unique beats that stand out and clearly convey the subtext. For example, my editor always gets all over me for using “stared,” since it’s so bland that it doesn’t really add much to the scene.

      • Joe Long says:

        I was thinking about “stared” this week. Sometimes I want to convey that the speaker gave the other person a facial expression, in this case disapproval, before speaking their words. (Like thinking “What did you just say? OK – here’s my reply”)

        “Glared” did come to mind. Where’s the thesaurus?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Honestly, I’m quite as hard on “stared” as my editor is. It depends on the context.

  8. I’m guessing that you have to know your character’s character really well for this to work effectively… without feeling tacked on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say yes. Sometimes I have to write scenes a couple of times–until I really know what the characters are trying to say–before I can start using the subtext. However, I also think it’s true that you can discover a lot about your characters by simply diving head on into the subtext.

  9. I agree completely about Captain America and the First Avenger. Both are my own Marvel favorites. I would put all of the examples you list regarding subtext within the greater bucket of applying irony to dialogue, and it’s a good list.

    One of my own favorite forms of irony in dialogue, though, is characters speaking their own truths by being wrong. In the “Wheel of Time” books, characters would often in their internal monologue describe their situation incorrectly, and this would tell the reader about the character. In dialogue, I think this is more often expressed as characters talking past one another, Dilbert-style. That’s a more negative wordplay technique, less suited to superheroes (who aren’t Obi-wan Kenobi), but it does have a lot of comedy potential.

  10. Kate Flournoy says:

    Yesssssssss. I love this. You knocked it out of the park again.
    There is nothing quite so thrilling to me as when a character turns around, looks you full in the eyes, and lies— and you know it. There are some things I enjoy more, but nothing that gives me that same insane spark of hysterical pleasure.

    This series is lovely food for thought. Thank you so much for doing it. It was a brilliant idea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! We often see the prompt, “When you don’t know what to write, have a character die.” But, honestly, it’s so much more interesting to “have a character lie” and see what happens.

  11. Joe Hayden says:

    Thank you for this posting. Timely advice as always. I am sort of a…(smart alec) and could not decide how to enter that into my writing. I usually speak in this fashion.
    I will be re-writing immediately. it’s only 480000 words or so…no problem!
    I do thank you for your posts. Sincerely.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sarcasm is my favorite foreign language. Fortunately, it translates very well to the page!

  12. I’ve been doing this lately in my dialogue, and it’s so much fun! On-the-nose has always annoyed me, even before I realized what it was that annoyed me about it or how to avoid it. You’re largely the reason I figured it out, actually. I enjoy having the characters sidestep and hem and haw, isntead of telling each other their deepest thoughts (because, who does that much anyways, especially with someone they don’t know very well?)
    Of course it does make it a bit more difficult to figure out, but that’s the fun of it: learning the delicate balance between annoying a reader by frustrating them, and giving them that delicious sense of unwrapping a gift.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think a lot of the time the reason writers are inclined to on-the-nose dialogue is because it’s so cathartic to have our characters say it like it is. Plus, we love our characters’ feelings and we totally want to explore them. But exerting a little patience and coming at those same feelings sideways can actually give us even more goodies to play with.

  13. Henrietta says:

    Karl Iglesius has a DVD out you can only get it used I believe but if you can get your hands on it well worth the money Im not sure waht it is called but just put in his name and DVD and he really spells it out. I do have a copy of it somewhere and I’ve watched it over and over and over always get more on deeper level. I do the same thing with KM Weiland book on story structure it is excellent and I reread it all the time and look on your site whenever I feel a block I get inspired. You are an amazing teacher so it Karl he teaches at UCLA his book is something like Writing with Emotional Impact or something like that. Anyway yes subtext really makes the story pop. Youre right its not easy to do for beginners like me but it is fun practicing. I have characters talking in my head all the time. I always say if I have no where to go no matter I have a playground in my mind! I just love your website too chockful of good stuff. Thanks for sharing your expertise. http://www.karliglesias.com/portfolio/writing-dialogue/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Henrietta! I’ll have to check that out. Glad you’re enjoying the posts and the books!

  14. Cap’s my favourite too – and I’m not even American!
    I love the line “I can do this all day”
    It sums up everything about Steve Rogers that DIDN’T come out of a bottle.
    I cheered when he said it in Civil War.

    • Very much this. I want see Civil War, but I also dread that it will paint him in a more negative light. My wife doesn’t want to see the good guys fight each other either, and so we’ve held off.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the repetition of that line in the later movies has been a really nice way to hearken back to his “skinny Steve” origins.

  15. I love reading subtext and you’re absolutely right about it being difficult to add it to your own writing. It usually happens on rewrites when you’re consciously looking for it. But every once in a while you get lucky when the right words present themselves.

    In the project I’m currently working on, I wrote this today:

    Not bothering to cover herself, she says, “Oh, but I do love feeling the ocean air on my bare skin.”

    I throw the towel at her. “I’d rather you not bare yourself to my nephew. He’s watching from the house.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Organic writing is almost always the best, but sometime we do still have to go looking for it, refining it, making something out of nothing.

    • Leanna Englert says:

      I’m having one of those “wish I’d written that” moments. I’m wondering, does she get it?

  16. What up folks.

    Half-dead here and can’t keep my eyes open. Read through the first half and looks really juicy. I don’t have any tricks for subtext just yet, but I was recently subject to one. There was one memorable scene (why I have no idea) where the protag and sidekick are investigating a lead. They proceeded to ask questions etc but it was the way the guy responded that caught my attention. He leaned back into his chair, clasped his hands together instead of answering a direct question etc. Now looking back, that whole scene with the subtext was a classic misdirection. But when I was reading it I was tricked! Just a little subtext made me curious. Later I realized the author was trying to keep me guessing.

    Alright, good night.

  17. Joe Long says:

    Even though I’m more comfortable with dialogue than stuff like the 1st person narrator describing his feelings, I will review with this list handy, especially the parts written a year or more ago. I confess to getting a satisfied thrill after some of my recent scenes, realizing all the clues that can be dropped in.

    For example, the opening of the first chapter has Mom and Dad discussing the impending visit of her sister, but the MC in his attempts to work his way conversation. Being excluded (how rude!) symbolic of the poor relationship he has with his father.

    Much later in the story, during an intimate moment the MC imagines he’s with someone else. Afterwards she breaks Carl Reiner’s rule and says, “You don’t know how much I love you” but he doesn’t reply, and instead continues to hug her. His silence is symbolic of his guilt, as he feels too guilty to respond.

    At 70k words so far there’s a lot of dialogue. I work hard on the logical actions/reactions, but feel that I need to check the degree of on-the-nose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I say, break Carl’s rule with abandon if at least one of the character’s doesn’t really mean it! There’s subtext for you.

  18. More useful information for new and experienced writers… but do we have to wade through all this comic book movie detritus to get it?

    Sorry, but to me, it makes your recent posts extremely hard to read… no, hard isn’t the right word, but tedious. I find myself glossing through to avoid all the references and examples.

    Sorry, Katie, but like a few other non US subscribers I’ve spoken to, you’re becoming too fixated on these kids’ movies. I enjoyed the few Marvel comics we saw here when I was a child, but by eight years old, I’d moved on to real novels with real people as characters.

    Keep up the good work, but try to vary how you deliver the advice, or it’ll become boring.

    • Variety is good, and I can fully understand an aversion to American action movies. However, I have never found much of use in an “argument to maturity”, and Marvell movies aren’t as provincial as all that.

      As a computer engineer, I’ve worked over my career with folks from Mexico, France, Germany, Canada, England, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Russia, India, Vietnam, Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Japan, and those are the ones I remember offhand! We still have been known to watch movies like Iron Man or The Force Awakens on our quarterly outings. Drawing lessons from examples that have broad appeal seems like good communication technique to me. Just food for thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I completely understand. But I adore Marvel, so there we are. 😉

      • When all’s said and done, Katie… It’s your blog. Your advice is still sound.
        Keep up the good work.

      • Not everyone is going to enjoy the Marvel universe. I’m sure to some it’s an acquired taste. But I think if we didn’t study these kind of movies we’d definitely be running amiss. Storytelling has become extremely visual with the advent and development of television. It’s definitely not a kids movie. Marvel has dominated the box office for the past several years for a good reason. It’s all good for learning purposes.

  19. Just re-read this and enjoyed it a little more. It’s always better the second time around right?

    These 5 points are great handles for our dialogue.

    1. Advances the plot.

    2. Accurately represents characters.

    3. Mimics realism.

    4. Entertains.

    5. Offers subtext.

    One of my highlights for Storming was the great dialogue. This was my first realization of the importance of dialogue. All characters are ultimately revealed through it and allows readers to really enjoy the story. My second realization was that dialogue not only reveals character, but also is deepened through all dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Every person brings out something a little different about a character. They allow us to see more sides to our protagonist. I think you talked about this in a recent post regarding minor characters.

    In the video where Peggy Carter says, “You really don’t know how to talk to women do you?” was hilarious!

    Nice post! Can’t wait to see you write a book o dialogue. *hint hint*
    I need to read that book, The Art of Subtext. But my TBR list is already pretty massive.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for your kind words about Storming‘s dialogue! I love dialogue, especially banter. It’s always my favorite part of any story to write. I’ve actually been planning a blog series on dialogue for over a year now, but just haven’t gotten my act together on it. Maybe in 2017!

      • That’d be great. I’m sure your plate is pretty full by now. There’s so many things to be gleaned on the matter of dialogue. The topic is virtually endless. Everyone has their own way of saying things. It’s quite interesting actually. I wish someone would write a book about it naturally. I just got an ARC about word sayings and can’t wait to read it!

        I’ve recently been enjoying audiobooks for some reason. There’s some added benefits to listening to a book versus reading it. I guess it would depend on the narrator. But all of the nuances of intonation, accent and dialect make a huge impact. Some of the things you wouldn’t pick up by reading it.

        Adios!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Audio books are a great way to study dialogue–as are movies.

        • Joe Long says:

          I carefully use “So”, “Well” and “Like” in the dialogue, trying not to over use it and where it’s most appropriate, especially to add the same kind of things an action beat would.

          I vary it by character. The school teacher and doctor dads don’t speak this way, but the wives and especially kids are more likely to. The folks raised in the area use the local dialect to one degree or another, but the kids who move din from out fo state don’t.

          In relation to audio books, I like to read it all out loud during my self editing. I will look again at anything I stumble over on a first, quick read. I want it to be able to flow.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Reading out loud is such a good trick for refining dialogue. It’s like Carrie Fisher used to say about George Lucas’s dialogue, “You can write this stuff, but you can’t say it!”

  20. I read somewhere else the author should only start to actually use subtexting at the point in the novel where the reader is already familiar with the characters involved. Use it too early and the reader would not pick up on it. I think that might be true.
    While some of the techniques you mention will work early in a manuscript (avoiding direct answers, lying in the face of apparent evidence…) the subtle hints only work if I understand the situation and type of any one character. Only then can I reflect on such things as irony or sarkasm or understatement. Do you agree?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes and no. Yes, we always have to disseminate information at the proper rate to keep readers oriented. But that doesn’t mean we have to spell everything out upfront. Subtextual dialogue early on can be great foreshadowing–and can dramatically add to a story’s “re-readability factor.”

  21. Garrett Amerson says:

    A favorite trick for writing dialogue? That’s a great question. After reading your post, I can’t think of anything to shed much light on the subject. Seems you hit all the beats! Although I will say that before I typically can even approach subtext in my own writing, I like to play the scene out the most obvious way, which then gives insight into how the subtext could be approached. For me, it also helps to know the characters and scenes well enough that I already have a feel for the types of subtext I want to use. Well, if I’m being REALLY honest, I’ve only been experimenting with subtext in my last couple of works, as I’m still really learning a lot about it!

    So, I can’t say I know much about subtext, but I’m learning. Btw, what kinda joker would get you some Captain America stickers? … nonsense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, that’s a really good approach. Sometimes, as writers, we just need to get the obvious out on the page so we can really see and evaluate it. Only then can we move forward with really mining the subtext.

      And, yeah, Captain America stickers… pffft. Crazy what people send. :p

    • Joe Long says:

      Recently I’ve begun to jot down notes before I start a scene, mostly the pieces of information that I want to pass on to the reader – then I can figure out how to state it.

      For example, to start chapter one, after the prologue, I wanted to show things about personalities and relationships:

      Mom’s condescending about her sister, who’s been in many relationships
      Dad’s a bit of a jerk, who doesn’t want to be bothered much doing stuff for other people
      Neither try to include their son in the conversation
      The son’s pedantic, obsessive/compulsive and shy

      With those in front of me, I can have the characters state or hint at things, just that some sort of reference is made that the reader can pick up on.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Outlining, FTW!

        • Joe Long says:

          I outline in stages.

          First I have the overall story arc with all the main events and plot points, but lacking specific details. Later on, as I work through the writing, the details start filling in. Right now I’m writing the middle of the second act and have a fairly detailed plan for the rest of that act, but the third is still mostly main points. I jot down details of future chapters and scenes as they pop into my head, but they still need organized later on.

          When I start a scene, but usually not long not before, I’ll think out what all the goals of the scene are and what facts and attitudes I want to express. “Here’s the scene, sketch it out, and then visualize it” to get the specific dialogue and subtext which meets the goals of the sketch. Having the list in front of me makes it much easier to do subtext that hints at things rather than just stating them. “If this is true, what would the characters say?”

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            That’s similar to how I do it–except my earlier explorations aren’t formalized prose, but more just me talking my way through the possibilities and necessities.

  22. That sounds like good advice. Almost everything I like about what I have done in my writing has been done in layers of successive improvements.

  23. Sandra Bryant says:

    This blog is really great. I am actually a screenwriter, but your advice works for all writers. I don’t know if you remember me but I actually emailed you a year or so back regarding writing advice, and you were so kind and helpful, I really appreciated your thoughtful advice.

    Regarding this post:
    You have done a really great job at pointing out techniques to use. I thought this post was very helpful and clear.

    In terms of other techniques, I recently purchased Robert McKee’s newest book on Audible, ‘Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen’. This book, AMAZING!

    Too many great tips to share, but one that stood out to me that we all know is going on we just might not have noticed it, he refers to it as the Third Thing, Trialogue, as Mckee puts it. Instead of stating how each character feels, they discuss a third thing, which acts as a metaphor for the emotions between them. When building subtext.

    Also he mentioned a technique that famous writers have used, he states, ask “If I were this character in these circumstances what would I do?

    http://www.mirandaliasson.com/crawling-inside-your-characters-heads-from-robert-mckees-story/

    http://www.indiewire.com/2016/07/robert-mckee-dialogue-the-art-of-verbal-action-for-page-stage-and-screen-excerpt-1201705121/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was so excited to see that book for preorder! Is it out now? I thought it was still awhile in coming.

  24. This might be my favorite Marvel post you’ve written so far. Cap is my favorite (seriously. You should see my desk at work! They call me Mrs. America!), and I love to write dialogue (almost to a fault. My WIP is filled with more dialogue than anything else).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Sounds like you’re a kindred spirit. I had to tell my sister to stop buying me Captain America themed presents. 😉

  25. For me, what makes the cinematic Cap so appealing is his Truth that he “doesn’t like bullies, no matter where they’re from.” That one line has powered all three of his films, be it the Nazis, Hydra, or the government trying to dictate his actions.

    No, he’s not cool like Tony or funny like Spider-man or Ant-man. But, in being the Flat Arc character that represents a basic truth about decency and integrity, he is every bit the lynchpin to the MCU that Kate describes in various places. I love a good flawed protagonist, but I also want to see the occasional protagonist that gives me, and the world, something to aspire to. It’s why Cap is easily my favorite Marvel character.

    It’s also why Superman has been my favorite character since childhood. The notion of the world’s most powerful man just wanting to help and do the right thing is comforting, but also endlessly fascinating to me. Sadly, the folks at DC/WB seem to have lost sight of that, making him darker and morally ambiguous in the truly awful Man of Steel film. There was not one single positive thing I have to say about that film, and as a result I’ve written off their movie universe and easily skipped BvS.

    Contrast that with First Avenger, which is pitch perfect in its portrayal of Steve Rogers. Everything from the first hour is perfection to my mind, and it especially shines in moments with Erskine, the live grenade, and fetching the flag. Chris Evans’ performance isnt flashy like some Marvel characters, but it’s probably the hardest to pull off and he should get more credit for how amazing a job he does.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with this. For all that we go on and on about complex characters with complex morality, the bottom line is that Steve’s defining conviction, personal sense of morality, and absolute dignity is every bit as compelling and relatable in its own right. We’d all like to be that person on at least some level. It’s encouraging to see him acted out with such realism and compassion–one of those “guiding light” kind of characters, which are incredibly hard to pull off without coming across as smugly moralistic.

  26. Huthayfah says:

    How do I know when I go too far with subtext? I recently wrote a short story where I had to introduce and develop tension between two characters in just half a page. While I managed it, everyone said that it was too off-the-nose (if you might call it that) and hard to understand. Any tips on how to identify if a piece is too cryptic and how to fix that without racking up the page count?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say you’ve identified the answer for yourself: if beta readers are offering feedback that they found the story too confusing, that’s the best sign there is that you need to go back and insert more markers to create context for the subtext.

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