Writing by not writing: subtext in dialogue

Tips / Theatre / Dialogue, Subtext

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.

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