How to Write Subtext in Dialogue to Create Greater Conflict

Every story is about conflict. Although most people associate conflict with fist fights, gunfire, and explosions, most conflict occurs through dialogue even if a gun might be involved.

In dialogue, there should always be two types of actions:

  • What’s said
  • What’s really meant

Picture a man and a woman in a fancy restaurant, seated together at a table by themselves. If the couple is on a first date, what they’ll talk about are their interests, what they do, and who they are. Basically, they’ll introduce themselves to each other.

However, the subtext of all this talk is whether the other person likes them or not, what does this other person seems to like, or if am I making a good impression or not.

In the same way, dialogue in every scene should contain text (what we hear) and subtext (what’s the purpose of this dialogue).

In this short scene from “The Sting,” two con men are planning their next move in luring in a rich mob boss that they want to fleece. Even though the dialogue is sparse, it’s loaded with subtext.

One man tells his partner, “He’s waiting for you in the card room.” (Subtext: You better hurry up.)

The other man responds, “Let him wait.” (Subtext: I know what I’m doing.)

When writing a scene, go through your dialogue and identify the subtext. If you can’t, then you know your dialogue is probably not as strong as it could be.

Since most writers write dialogue that’s too direct and on the nose, the answer is to rewrite that dialogue using the original direct and on the nose dialogue as the subtext. Then write new dialogue that reveals that subtext.

Subtext is crucial to make dialogue feel more meaningful and mysterious. Without subtext, dialogue tends to feel flat and uninteresting. With subtext, dialogue becomes far more compelling to keep an audience’s attention figuring out what’s really going on.

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