I know what makes dialogue interesting is what characters don't say as much as (or more than) what they do. How do I achieve this with a character who prides herself on 'saying it like it is', and not beating around the bush. If she thinks something, positive or negative, she doesn't see the point in pretending she doesn't. She doesn't go out of her way to voice these opinions, but doesn't shy away from it, either.

It's both her self conceptualisation (maybe a little exaggerated to fit how she sees herself, tying into a strong sense of right and wrong,) as well as what she's actually like. It's also a source of conflict and something she learns to be a little more flexible on.

I figured it would make sense for her to have her limits about what she'll be honest about and how honest she'll be, although I haven't figured them all out, yet. One is repressed grief. She doesn't react well to people saying/doing things that make her confront it. Her coping mechanism is to take on loads of responsibility and subconsciously say 'I don't have time to grieve.' But if she doesn't have time to grieve, she doesn't have time for romance, no matter how much she likes the person - much to her love interest's frustration. Maybe there's a clue in the fact that that's internal truth.

Another idea is that her love interest is a character who's the exact opposite. He grew up in a political family. He's silver-tongued and double meanings and subtly are his first language. He isn't afraid to pretend to like you or tell you the version of the truth that will make it easiest for you to hear and will do it by default. I could maybe get something from the interaction between the 2 personalities...

There must be a way of writing straightforward characters who have subtext and interesting dialogue. I've also thought she could reference things that she knows but the audience doesn't. Maybe not technically 'subtext' but falls under the category of characters not saying everything, so I think it fits. Although this only works for as long at the audience doesn't know the things.

2 Answers 2


No one tells it like it is.

The whole concept is a coping mechanism. They have a limited subset of things they are comfortable being completely open about... and a truckload of things they don't.

Likewise "too busy to grieve" is never true, its just a thing you say... even when you are trying your damndest to be too busy.

The point is, you write the subtext on a deeper level. You write the unspoken, the cringing wheedling discomfort as the subtext makes its way onto her face and in her posture and mood.

Subtext is being pissed off at the UberEats guy because someone is talking about their mom and it is breaking your heart.


Leading characters who are foils for each other

Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility uses 2 sisters as foils of each other.

One sister believes in 'sense': rational thought, measured manners, and withholding anything but polite respect for others. The other sister represents the idea of 'sensibility' which at the time was a sort of Romanticist lifestyle theory about speaking your truth, embracing honest emotions, and indulging the senses in excesses of flavor-passion-delight-poetry, etc.

Austen is clever enough to get us to like both sisters by fleshing out their dichotomy into realistic personalities (one sister is introverted and cerebral, the other extroverted and flighty), and giving them scenes together where they moderate each other in front of other characters – as opposed to clashing against each other to highlight their differences.

Together they have a chemistry that smooths out the other's flaws. One sister can comment on the other's temperament, while saying the thing the sister should have said. We see the working version of their mutually-balanced relationship, before we see their broken personalities on their own.

Showing the flaw through action

Austen does some narrative mirroring on their character arcs so we see how neither sister is right or wrong. Each digs into a bad situation the other sister would never fall for. Both hit walls where their fundamental temperaments are challenged by insurmountable dilemmas where their personalities work against them leading to character breaking-points.

At the crux of the novel, each sister is forced to find an internal moderation –– but later within the long denouement Austen allows the sisters to (mostly) return to their original personalities. Austen loves irony and double-speak, so even though big deus ex machina contrivances get the sisters with their eventual husbands, there's a feeling that life happened anyway in spite of their personalities, and not as a reward for 'fixing' their flaw.

Character trait vs Flaw

An aspect I love that might inform your story is the sisters aren't presented as 'wrong' or 'false' for having extreme personalities. The traits aren't viewed as flaws that should be corrected – but they do work as handicaps that get them in deeper trouble.

In fact all the side characters are shown to be more or less immutable in personality, for better or worse. A social climber just keeps social-climbing, a difficult mother-in-law continues to be difficult; they merely adjust their targets rather than learning their lesson. Likewise kind meek characters never speak-up, so it's up to everyone else to force their progress towards happiness.

Austen isn't preaching about becoming a certain type of ideal person, rather the story is about enjoying strong, opinionated (flawed) sisters as they mature and learn to accept the things they can't change. They're tested and have these character-stretching experiences, but they emerge as stronger versions of the people they already were, who understand themselves better.

How to double-speak?

Part of what makes this work is Austen's supremely sarcastic narrator. She describes every situation ironically, with descriptions that obviously don't match the thing being described. Every sentence drips in double-speak relating dry facts first-hand while simultaneously layered with a gossipy wrong interpretation, kind of like a comedy of a very biased sports announcer who can't admit his team is losing.

The 'truth' is never told directly, so the reader is forced to create an active composite of what is actually going on. It's established early so the reader knows the narrator is unreliable – Austen lays irony thick as a rule.

The novel gives examples of happy, mature characters who are comfortable being themselves, and don't change no matter what's going on around them. To the teenage girls these characters are presented as 'cringe' and embarrassing. Meanwhile high-status dignified characters ultimately have weak personalities shown through their actions, but the narrator flatters them according to their status.

I think the takeaway is that Austen bluntly establishes this double-speak in her language: don't trust what you read. Then she buries the stories structural ironies so they have a delayed pay-off.

Subtext isn't information withheld from the reader, it's information withheld from the protagonistit doesn't even enter their mind so the narrator doesn't mention it either.

You've got to communicate facts to your reader, influence that meta-narrative they keep in their heads, without mentioning it directly through the narrator. The effect is that the reader is disagreeing with the protagonist's interpretation of events creating tension. (Confusing the reader does not create tension, it's just bad writing.)

The reader wants the protagonist to change, they want the narrator to confirm their opinions. By the time Austen's sisters realize the cringe elders are awesome people, the reader is already aware and it feels like a pay-off, like a release of tension.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.