Creative writing comes from a deep well of thought. Here’s how to dig down into the subtext, and bring it to the surface.
Whether you write fiction or non fiction, it always feels better when the words flow, and the mind is pumping out ideas faster than your fingers can type. You are on fire, and the suspense is killing you.
Even in non-fiction, when a metaphor won’t do the job, we can use excerpts of dialogue to explain what we mean. Quotes and citations.
Every writer is different, but we all like a good story. Often, we feel drawn to certain genres of fiction, or a style of article writing that seem to read like magic, so we want to write that way too.
Aspiring to the style and rhythm of a good author’s work is a natural way to develop your chops as a writer.
Dialogue always seems to be a mystical part of the craft that seems hard to fathom at first. But when we truly want to improve our dialogue writing, we should analyse what we read and let things rub off on our own work.
Copying another writer, and hoping it’ll cause the greatness to appear in you, won’t work.
Reading the work of authors who you admire is the fastest way to get those rhythms and cadences that create the magic to fill your mind. When that happens, and you read enough, you’ll see something of it your own work.
And when you begin to see it in your writing, it’ll look like your work, because that’s exactly what it is, yours. You got it through labour and toil.
Most us who love the creative lifestyle, and possess a pretty good dose of empathy in our brain-nodes have a high interest in people, I suspect that this has something to do with how we learn to emulate another author’s rhythms and handling of dialogue.
You might be able to elicit a little style, but you can never “learn” it. It’s too elusive to chase. You’ll go down rabbit holes, and not surface for at least three years.
Reading our favourite authors is simply fun, entertaining, and time well spent. At the same time, if we’re serious about improving our creative writing abilities, we can stop awhile and study a few passages. When we do this we can try and hear the rhythm of the speech, the narrative, and ask questions as to why it speaks to us. Writing can have the same tones and colours that music possesses. If we study it in its parts, we’ll begin to notice some of what makes it beautiful.
When I analyse a writers dialogue, I look for two main things; what’s the point of the dialogue, and did the writer get to the point in the most suspenseful, and economically written way?
Does it make me feel like I understand the story more, and am I excited about reading more?
This leads me to think about how people really speak, and then how we write how people speak.
Often, if you listen to a heated conversation between people in everyday life, you’ll hear questions about what the person is really talking about:
“I just find it difficult to relate to you, that’s all.”
“Do you mean to say that I’m an asshole?”
“I didn’t mean that, but now you mention it…”
In real life, people tend to talk, and follow whatever thread of thought offers itself. That won’t work when you want to write good dialogue. Written dialogue is a record of what was said, and it has reason and logic narrated by a voice that tells the story. It leads to a “Kerpow!” finish. It ends with a verbal punch in the gut.
That punch might end up being a jab, or a poke, but it’ll lead to the characters making new decisions about how to go forwards in the story. The dialogue scene will start with a problem and end with a gut punch that solves one problem, but creates a new dilemma for the main character.
Real life conversations are great to listen to, we get ideas about subtext in these conversations.
In fiction, subtext is fully laden with implications of something simmering and boiling under the surface. It creates tension.
“You’re working late?”
“Again? Working late, who is it?”
“I said, no one, just my co-worker.”
“No one and you have spent a lot of working time together recently, haven’t you?”
“Well, okay. Enjoy it, I hear it’s going to be cold out there tonight, take a coat with you. I’m going to bed.”
It could go on until the door slams, and narrative would add a little context. But you get the idea that there is tension about working late. One character is doing something suspicious, and the other is making decisions about locking them out for the night.
The subtext is implied speech, ideas beneath the surface that create tension and emotions for us to interpret.
Subtext creates tension, and it avoids direct statements that simple tell us, as readers, exactly what’s happening. We are made to work a little, look for clues in the dialogue, and draw conclusions about the meaning of speech. This makes reading more enjoyable than a simple report of what a person directly thinks and says.
The art of using subtext is the art of understanding human nature. We are all a little embarrassed by what we feel about our desires and needs in life. We shouldn’t wear our hearts on our sleeves, and we are taught not to be an open book to the world. So we navigate our way through conversations with carefully chosen words that indicate ideas more than reveal them fully.
They faced each other, faces taut and sweaty. They spoke plainly — they were too tough for subtext.
“My King-Fu is better than yours!” He had never been beaten in a fight.
“I know, but I’ll do my best.” This was true.
Fight scene: Biff! Bang! Kerpow!
“I won the fight. I am champion!”
More form Sean P. Durham on Writing — How to Get to The Heart of Your Story