Writing Q&A 17: Subtext in dialogue; chapter titles
Published: February 28, 2007
|In dialogue, what is subtext?|
Subtext is the meaning beneath the dialogue; what the speaker really means, even though he's not saying it directly. As humans, we often don't articulate our thoughts exactly. We're thinking on our feet as we talk, processing other stimuli, like body language, and struggling with our own concerns and emotions as well as those of the listener. In fiction, this kind of miscommunication can add authenticity, create dramatic tension, and even reveal deeper truths.
Dorothy Parker's short story "Here We Are" follows a newlywed couple--married two hours and 26 minutes--during the train ride to their honeymoon in New York. They've argued on the trip, and the young bride is upset because she thought things would be different once they were married. The husband responds, his dialogue strong with subtext:
"Well, you see, sweetheart," he said, "we're not really married yet. I mean. I mean-well, things will be different afterwards. Oh, hell. I mean, we haven't been married very long."
"No," she said.
"Well, we haven't got much longer to wait now," he said. "I mean--well, we'll be in New York in about twenty minutes. Then we can have dinner, and sort of see what we feel like doing. Or I mean. Is there anything special you want to do tonight?"
"What?" she said.
"What I mean to say," he said, "would you like to go to a show or something?"
"Why, whatever you like," she said. "I sort of didn't think people went to theaters and things on their--I mean, I've got a couple of letters I simply must write. Don't let me forget."
"Oh," he said. "You're going to write letters tonight?"
On the surface, they're discussing their arrival in New York and plans for the evening--maybe a show or writing letters--but the topic they're really broaching isn't once mentioned directly. The event that he thinks is supposed to change everything--sex--still hasn't happened yet. His true thoughts pierce through the mundane surface topics to reveal a better understanding of his character and this couple's relationship.
Certainly, the husband's dialogue gives the reader a strong indication of what he really means in "Here We Are." In fact, he almost says it before stopping himself with the repeated phrase, "I mean." Subtext, however, can be submerged even deeper in dialogue. In this scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Daisy, already married to Tom, visits the mansion of Gatsby, her long lost love, for the first time after he's acquired the wealth that is so important to her. Gatsby shows Daisy his shirts:
"I've got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall."
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft, rich heap mounted higher--shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before."
Daisy isn't really talking about--or weeping over--the shirts from England. Her strong emotional reaction comes from the excitement of Gatsby having the proper wealth, and perhaps remorse over the complexity of the situation; he is finally a man she could marry, but she is already wed to Tom. This seemingly simple conversation about shirts contains a great deal of information and emotion. Subtext has the power to take an innocuous subject and open it up to profound meaning.
|Do novel chapters need titles? |
Titles certainly aren't necessary for individual chapters. Plenty of great novels simply use numbered chapters to break the story into sections. Still, some novelists use chapter breaks as an opportunity to add clarity or another dimension to the unfolding story.
Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter is written using a series of first person narrators. Titling each chapter with the name of the narrator helps establish who is speaking.
In The Shipping News, Annie Proulx titled each chapter with a mariner's term along with a definition or description. For example, the third chapter is titled "Strangle Knot" and is followed by this description from The Ashley Book of Knots: "The strangle knot will hold a coil well ... It is first tied loosely and then worked snug." The titles work in harmony with the book's setting--the Newfoundland coast--and the job of the main character, Quoyle, who reports the shipping news. Also, each title correlates with the action in the chapter. The chapter "Strangle Knot," for instance, chronicles the series of events that build in intensity, including Quoyle's parents' suicides, his wife's death and the near loss of his children, ultimately motivating Quoyle to pack up his belongings and move his family to his ancestral home in Newfoundland. A strangle knot of a situation if ever there was one.
Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics is structured as a literature course syllabus, which works in harmony with the brainy narrator, Blue van Meer. Each chapter is the title of a literary classic with which the events in the chapter have an association (some more sly than others). The chapter titled "Brave New World," for instance, includes a first day at school. The book culminates with a final exam, completing the syllabus structure.
So while titles are certainly not necessary--many novels don't have them--they have the potential to create unity or add another layer to the reading experience. If you use them, make sure they're contributing in a meaningful way. The reader will be looking for associations.
(Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" is included in the Gotham Writers' Workshop anthology Fiction Gallery.)
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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