Account Login

Writing Tips

Writing by not writing: subtext in dialogue

Genre: Theatre

The awkward silences. The times we talk too much while avoiding eye contact. Saying the opposite of what we actually mean. That little action that says articulately all the things we’ve been trying to say. Smiling and wishing someone well as our heart is loudly breaking.

In plays, as in life, there are times we can’t articulate what we want to say. Or are afraid to say. Or can’t say. Or won’t say. Or don’t know how to say.

Subtext is the meanings, motivations, and actions beneath the text. Or indeed between the text. And the skill of writing dialogue in scripts is to build in this subtext, or to leave room for this. In short: to not write. To leave space for this. Your actors will relish this. They’re pros at bringing rich meaning to one word or no words at all.

You don’t need to fill in an entire backstory, or make clear what the characters mean or are trying to say for the audience’s benefit. If you leave room for it in the subtext, then the actors will make it clear in their performances. Think of all the times we were sorry but didn’t say it but the person knew anyhow. Or the tension present when running into someone who we had a falling out with months before. We don’t need to rehash the falling out to feel the weight and consequences of it in the conversation.

Subtext is what makes us lean in when watching a play. It’s what allows the drama to live and breathe. So try stripping back your dialogue a bit. Sometimes the strongest thing said in a scene is the unsaid.

Try stripping back your dialogue a bit. Sometimes the strongest thing said in a scene is the unsaid.

Related Writing Exercise

Writing Exercises

Subtext: running into an ex

Genre: Theatre


MORE TIPS & EXERCISES

Writing Tips

Line breaks

Genre: Poetry

Each line must carry at least one unit of sense either in the line itself or across several lines. To make the line-break most effective, you may need to either shorten the line or lengthen it or reorder the words to ensure the last word of the line is dramati...

Daljit Nagra

Writing Tips

The power of objects

Genre: Non-Fiction & Life Writing

Objects have immense power to help us to tell stories. I have found that an entire storyline can be found in the history of a single object. When researching a biography of my grandfather, who worked on the Thailand Burma Railway, I found on a visit to the Bri...

Julie Summers

Writing Exercises

Research and screen outline exercises

Genre: Film & TV

PART ONE: Documentary or Research Exercise for Screenwriters Using a still camera and or a tape recorder (or video recorder), follow someone you don’t know (or know only slightly) around for several hours. Select a “subject” with as different a b...

Tina Gharavi

Writing Tips

The word cull

Genre: Writing for Children & YA

After the giddy rush of a first draft, how you edit and refine your work is of equal, if not more importance. For me, this is the point where the real writing starts, where I see what works and what doesn’t. It’s also when my word count drops; I try to del...

Emma Carroll

Writing Exercises

What if?

Genre: Writing for Children & YA

Start with a scenario – this might be a random picture, a very short scene from a novel, a few lines of poetry or the opening shots of a film. To explore potential story possibilities from that scenario, you will need to write for three minutes on each of t...

Emma Carroll

Writing Tips

Keeping focused on your story’s central idea

Genre: Fiction

Before you begin to write your story ask yourself what is it about, what do you want it to say, what is the central idea that will drive the story along. Think of it as the story’s SPINE. Like our bodies, without a spine we would collapse and so it is with w...

Mavis Cheek

Writing Exercises

Identify the spine in a favourite book

Genre: Fiction

Think about your favourite novel or short story, or if not your favourite, then the novel or short story you are reading at the moment. If you choose your favourite then re-read it with this exercise in mind if that helps. And then write out what the main idea...

Mavis Cheek

Writing Tips

Avoid getting stuck: use multiple notebooks

Genre: Fiction

Writing can be hard, particularly if you’re stuck at a certain point. It’s easy to feel tied to the last thing you wrote. Or maybe something isn’t working that you’re trying to thrash over and over. I find using a number of notebooks really frees up my...

Alexis Zegerman

Writing Exercises

50 shades of character – 50 character questions

Genre: Fiction

As a writer, you need to know your characters better than they know themselves. The way to believable, complex, story-laden characters is to flesh them out as much as possible. Imagine if your character was at a job interview – how would they answer all the ...

Alexis Zegerman

Writing Tips

All writing is rewriting

Genre: Fiction

Do not expect your first draft of anything to be good. First drafts are meant to be scrappy, tatty, sometimes even embarrassing. Reading them through can occasionally feel a little demoralising but it’s important to see a first draft for what it is, a founda...

Melanie McGrath

Writing Exercises

Walking around a scene

Genre: Fiction

Whenever you write a scene it’s a good idea to rewrite it – perhaps in note form – using a different pronoun (first person instead of third person), from a different point of view or in a different tense. This will give you a deeper, more layered sense o...

Melanie McGrath

Writing Tips

‘Go’: If you’re stuck, blocked, in a rut

Genre: Poetry

If Sterne was stuck with a piece of writing, he’d change his clothes and wig then work in a different part of his house. You do that. Especially the wig thing. Especially if you’re a man. Macchiavelli wore his best clothes to read the classics: you do that...

Ian Duhig