Attention all aspiring writers! Ever read a book that is just so beautiful you find yourself wondering exactly how the author did it? We’ve been there. In our new series, Editor’s Pick, we’re asking editors to break down the mechanics of what makes the writing in some of our favorite books so amazing, and give tips on how you can apply it to your own work.
First up is a piece from Jordan Brown, an Executive Editor at Harpercollins’ Balzer & Bray. He breaks down the concept of subtext and explains how Sara Zarr, author of Gem & Dixie, masters this concept in her work – and even gives some writing prompts so you can learn to master the art of subtext yourself! Check out what Jordan has to say below, then try it out yourself!
The Secret To Writing Subtext In Dialogue and Narration
By Jordan Brown
One of the most complicated things about being a person in the world is that no one ever says what they really mean. Sometimes we’re cruel to people we love, sometimes we’re sweet to people we don’t like, sometimes we joke around when we’re actually upset, sometimes we act like we don’t care about something because we don’t want to get hurt…you get the idea. Rarely are the words a person gives us a complete and accurate representation of what they think and feel, and thus much of our relationships—with a parent, a sibling, a friend, a significant other—is about guessing at what a person is truly thinking or feeling by reading between the lines, so to speak. As a writer, you know what all your characters are thinking and feeling, but your reader doesn’t, and one of your most important jobs is creating subtext: using dialogue and narration that comes at the truth sideways, to give the reader enough to guess at the feelings of a character without the character telling us outright. Doing this—and doing it well—might be the most important piece of crafting fictional characters that feel like authentic people.
Sara Zarr is a master at subtext in dialogue and narration. Take, for example, a scene from her latest book, Gem & Dixie. This is the end of the first chapter, when Gem, the main character, comes home from school and we meet her sister, Dixie.
Dixie was home. She had the TV on and a sandwich in one hand, her phone in the other, homework all over the floor where she sat. She’d changed clothes since I’d seen her at school that morning—from jeans and a hoodie to shorts over tights and a green V-neck T-shirt that showed a lot. I had on baggy jeans and a plain blue sweater that would have hidden everything if there’d been anything to hide. As usual, she looked like the older sister.
She looked up. “I heard you stole money from some freshman today.”
Dixie had ways of knowing nearly everything that happened to me at school.
“Borrowed money,” I clarified.
“Why’d you have to tell them I was your sister?”
“You are my sister.”
“Thanks for embarrassing me.”
In our bedroom I put my backpack on my pillow with the straps toward the wall. My keys went on top of the cardboard box on its side that I used as a sort of nightstand. My shoes went inside the box, laces hanging out. I hung my jacket on the closet doorknob and put on the thick socks I always wore around our apartment. Whenever Dixie saw me doing this stuff, or checking the gate lock more than twice, she’d tease me and say I had OCD. But Mr. Bergstrom asked me a bunch of questions about it and said I didn’t fit the diagnosis, that it was more like I had a few rituals that helped me feel in control, and they didn’t interfere with my life, and it wasn’t the same thing. “Plus, from what you’ve told me about where you live,” he’d said, “checking the gate lock sounds like plain common sense.”
I confirmed one more thing—that my stash of cigarettes was still under the bed—then went back to the living room. The onion smell of Dixie’s sandwich made me salivate.
“Did you get that from Napoleon?” I asked.
She chewed and stared at me like, Obviously. Napoleon was the older guy who worked at the deli down the block and had a crush on Dixie—like a hundred other guys.
“Can I have some?” The ravioli from lunch seemed forever ago.
“No,” she said, but held it out anyway. I sat on the floor next to her and took a bite. Then another. Roast beef. Avocado. Cheddar cheese. Thin-sliced red onion and a hard sourdough roll. It was perfect, as if all of Napoleon’s craving for Dixie had been slathered onto that sandwich. I swallowed huge pieces of it, half chewed and sharp with mustard.
Dixie watched me eat. “You can finish that if you’ll go down and get the laundry from the dryer.”
“You did laundry? With what money?”
“Money I had.”
“I’m not going down there at night,” I said.
“It’s not night.”
She tried to take the sandwich away from me; I held it out of her reach. “It’s dark, though.”
“I washed some of your clothes, too, Gem. Do you want them to get stolen?” She lunged again for the sandwich.
“O-kay,” I said. I finished it and went the five steps to the kitchenette to throw away the white paper it had been wrapped in.
“Did you see your shrink today?”
“He’s not a shrink. He’s just a school psychologist.” I opened the fridge. There were a few stale corn tortillas, an opened bag of green beans, ketchup, and a white plastic butter dish with maybe a teaspoon of butter left, crumbs stuck all over it. Same as that morning.
“You should get him to send you to a real shrink. Say you need Adderall. You could sell it at school and then you’d have some money.” I’d heard that Dixie helped some seniors sell their prescriptions at school. I didn’t want to know. “I can tell you what symptoms to have,” she said.
I imagined going down to the laundry room. The lights could have burned out again. Sometimes there were noises that might be a zipper clanging against the dryer door, or might be rats or a creepy neighbor.
“Let’s go get the laundry together,” I said to Dixie.
She looked up from her homework. “You always do that.”
“‘What?’” she repeated, in a bad imitation of my voice. “I already took my shoes off.”
“So did I. Put them back on.”
I went to the bedroom to get mine. When I came out, Dixie stood by the door forcing her flip-flops over her tights.
“You’re going to fall down the stairs and die,” I said as she shuffle-walked to me.
I knelt to tie my laces. “Where’s Mom?”
“I know. Out where?”
“Work, I guess?”
I straightened up and we faced each other.
“Do you think Napoleon would give me a sandwich?”
She laughed. “Well, you might have to flash your boobs.”
“Is that what you do?”
“No! I’m joking, Gem, obviously. Do you really—” She shook her head. “You never get my jokes.”
It didn’t matter. I knew exactly why Dixie got sandwiches and why I wouldn’t.
Dixie is pretty. No one in our family is beautiful the way movie stars are beautiful, but she’s the type of girl who gets second, third, fourth looks—as many looks as people can get away with before she stares them down. She’s soft in the sense of being curvy, and hard in the sense of not taking any shit. She’s cute—her hair, her clothes, the faces she makes when she’s surprised or mad or thinks something is funny. And intimidating. She exudes a sexuality, but in a way where it’s like it’s for her, not for anyone else. It started in junior high, and by the time she got to high school, people couldn’t spend five minutes with Dixie before they wanted to give her things, feed her, touch her, get her to smile, be her friend, be her boyfriend. She got sandwiches, she got her cell phone bill paid, she got attention when she wanted and deflected it when she didn’t.
Whereas I still hadn’t figured out how to make and keep a friend.
I stared, she stared back. For her it was a game. She thought I was trying to get her to look away first. But really it was me trying to see who I was through Dixie’s eyes, me wondering if she evaluated me and my face and clothes and body, the ways I made it through the world, like I evaluated hers.
Did she look for herself in me, the way I looked for myself in her?
Finally she broke, and laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, Gem,” she said. “You probably scared that freshman with your creepy eyes.”
I didn’t want her to see I couldn’t take a joke, so I bugged my eyes at her to make them even creepier.
“Ew,” she said with an exaggerated shudder. “Let’s go downstairs before the rats come out.”
Gem and Dixie’s dialogue is about immediate, mundane things—borrowing money from a classmate, a sandwich, a meeting with the school counselor, doing laundry. But the dialogue and description convey more: about how Gem and Dixie feel about each other, about how close they are as sisters, about the sorts of things they talk about with each other, and the things they don’t talk about. Gem gives us some of her thoughts and feelings about Dixie towards the end, but what does Dixie think about Gem? What is Dixie feeling in this scene? What is the subtext when Dixie decides to open up the conversation by asking Gem why she told a classmate they were sisters, or when she asks about Gem seeing the school psychologist? What is Dixie thinking that she perhaps isn’t saying? What is Gem feeling that she isn’t saying, even to the reader?
Now that you’re thinking about how to employ subtext to present your fictional characters more authentically, try reading scenes from books by your favorite authors to see if you can pick up some techniques for telling us things about your characters without requiring the characters to say them outright. When you’re ready to try it out yourself, here’s an exercise for practicing this aspect of your craft:
Imagine a scene where your main character and their boyfriend arrive at your main character’s best friend’s birthday party, the best friend greeting them at the door and the party in full swing. The best friend does not know the boyfriend very well, and has a party to host.
Write four different scenes, one each in which the best friend secretly:
- hates your main character’s boyfriend
- has a crush on your main character’s boyfriend
- broke up with their own significant other last night
- found out that afternoon that they got rejected from their first-choice college
In all cases, the dialogue cannot touch on any of these things. How would these secrets affect the best friend? How would they manifest themselves in a scene that, on the surface, is not about any of these things? Here’s a tip: start by giving a good bit of thought to the particulars of the relationship between your main character and their best friend. Have fun!
What other topics would you like to hear about in future editor’s choice posts? Tell us in the comments below!