Friday, April 4, 2014

Practice Subtext In Your Dialogue

In Rainbow Rowell's novel Fangirl there is a discussion about writing when one of the characters uses the great phrase "piling up words". The idea being that sometimes when writing, you just have to pile up enough words for the magic to start happening.

There's a lot of truth to this. The people who tell us to write every day, to hit a certain minimum words count and to write your first drafts fast are giving similar advice from a place of wisdom. Generally speaking, the best way to learn how to write is to write...alot. To "pile up the words" so to speak.

I played college football and coached high school football and the analogy certainly applies to sports. The best possible way to learn how to play a sport is to play that sport as much as possible. To pile up the minutes so to speak.

But....

There comes a point at which piling up words and minutes isn't quite enough. There comes the point at which we need to practice.

When I was a junior in high school, I played defensive end and every day us defensive ends would spend part of the day practicing the same exact drill. We would line up opposite a tight end and a few yards down the line from the tight end was an offensive lineman. At the whistle, the tight end would down block and our job was to hit the tight end as hard as possible with our hands then step down the line with him towards the center. At the same time, the offensive lineman would pull and try to kick us defensive ends out and our job was to get low and take on the offensive lineman without giving any ground.

As a defensive end, this drill was incredibly counter intuitive. Why? Because defensive ends are always told to make sure nobody gets outside of you. "Don't break contain" I've heard coaches yell about a zillion times. Yet, here we were in a drill practicing stepping closer to the center thereby in a way, making it easier to get around the edge. The instinct of the newbie defensive end is that this feels wrong because you are making it easier for people to run around you.

The coaches explained the purpose of the drill but it never really clicked like in a true muscle memory sort of a way until the semi finals of the playoffs that year. We played a team that was committed to running the counter trap. And over and over again they had a tight end who would down block followed by an offensive lineman who would pull and try to kick me out. And each time he came I got nervous. I felt like if I closed the gap any further, I would make it easy for someone to run around the edge. And so, instead of taking him on low I would instinctively do what felt natural. I would step to the outside to protect my edge. And you know what happened each time? My stepping outside made it super easy for the lineman to kick me out, thus creating an enormous off tackle hole for the running back.

Needless to say, I got an earful in the film session after that game and I learned a powerful lesson. Usually, the things we need to practice are the things that DO NOT COME NATURALLY. Our job is to practice them until they become instinct.

One of the things that I naturally do when writing dialogue is write what pros in the screenwriting business call "on the nose" dialogue. And just so you know, "on the nose" dialogue is not a good thing.

On the nose dialogue is basically when a character says exactly what you think they should say in that situation. For instance.

Bob: Hey Chuck, how are you doing today?

Chuck: I suck Bob, how are you.

Bob: I kind of suck as well Chuck. I have a boring marriage, boring job. At least I'm in good health.

Chuck: I'm not in good health, I have a decent marriage but my job is boring as well.

That's one example. To find many more, look through your own writing, look for examples of dialogue where a character is expressing themselves precisely through their speech.

Instead of "on the nose" dialogue, what us newer writers need to do is practice dialogue with "subtext". Plenty of definitions by people smarter than I abound for "subtext" so I'll just put it in my own words. Dialogue that has subtext is dialogue that does not tell you exactly what the character is thinking or feeling. Rather, dialogue with subtext is dialogue that in some way hides or obfuscates what the character is thinking or feeling.

Why would the writer do this? Simple. To make the story more interesting. Readers don't want to be told exactly what is going on all the time. They want their brains to be actively involved, processing details, creating meaning of their own. Here's an example.

Bob: Hey Chuck, how you doing?

Chuck: Three days into the season and the Royals are already 3 games out of first place. You?

Bob:  There's been 2 world wars, a cold war, the internet, and twerking since my team won.

Chuck: You're a damn cubs fan?

Bob: Least I'm not dead.


Okay, this isn't Elmore Leonard dialogue, but hopefully you see the point. And the thing is, if you practice adding subtext to your dialogue I guarantee it's something that will add layers of interest to your fiction. My advice? Go through your manuscript and make an editing pass just for the purpose of looking at your dialogue. Find dialogue that's too "on the nose" and instead try to replace it with subtext.

Yes, piling up words is good but when we can find a concrete thing to practice, then our piled up words will inevitably get better faster. Best of luck!

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