Writing Dialogue – Part 5

Here’s the fifth part in Randy Ingermanson’s series on dialog:

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In the last four issues of this e=zine, I talked about
why dialogue is not like “real conversation”, about
what makes good dialogue, about the importance of using
dialogue tags, and about why Point of View is essential
to great dialogue. I made the point repeatedly that
dialogue is war.Let’s remember that there are hot wars and there are
cold wars. You don’t need bombs and bazookas to have a
war. Sometimes war is a subtle thing, with spies and
tea-time diplomacy and softly muted threats on the Red
Line to Moscow.

In this issue, I’d like to talk about the use of
subtlety in dialogue. In a word, I’d like to talk about
subtexting.

The message received is not always identical to the
message sent. For two reasons: People don’t always say
what they mean. People don’t always hear what they’re
saying.

Let’s look at an example of this in the work of a
master of subtexting — Jane Austen.

We’ll take a passage from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. To
summarize the story, our heroine Lizzy Bennett meets an
eligible but extremely arrogant and wealthy young man,
Mr. Darcy. They clash immediately, and Lizzy is sure
he’s the last man on earth she’d ever want to be
involved with. She treats him with such a bold
impertinence that he is gradually attracted to her.
When he finally asks her to marry him, she rejects him
flat out, causing a crisis in his life which teaches
him to learn to control his pride. Meantime, Lizzy is
learning from Darcy’s friends that he is quite a bit
warmer on the inside than he is on the outside. When
Lizzy learns that Darcy has paid a large amount of
money to quell a scandal in her family, she realizes
that she has seriously misjudged him. But neither he
nor she seems able to break the interpersonal logjam
between them. Until . . .

Darcy’s wealthy aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, hears
rumors that Darcy wants to marry Lizzy. Lady Catherine
is shocked and outraged, since she intends that her own
daughter should marry Darcy. She assumes that these
rumors were begun by Lizzie, based on her belief that
Lizzie is like herself — willing to do anything in
order to get what she wants. Lady C. immediately
travels to Lizzie’s home in the country to confront
her.

Lady Catherine completely lacks any tact or civility,
and in the scene that follows, she says exactly what
she thinks, never hearing her own message that Lizzie
is no more than a worm to be squashed. Lizzie defends
herself with calm politeness. The subtext of her
message is that Lady Catherine is a complete idiot —
which is true enough.

It’s a battle of wits between two strong personalities.
Lizzie’s words are all politeness, but make no mistake
— she returns every insult of Lady C.’s with compound
interest. My commentary on the subtext will be shown in
square brackets.

To the text, then, with Lady Catherine launching the
first volley:

“You can be at no loss, Miss Bennett, to understand the
reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own
conscience, must tell you why I come.”

Elizabeth looked with unaffected astonishment.

“Indeed, you are mistaken, Madam. I have not been at
all able to account for the honour of seeing you here.”

[Randy sez: Lizzie is perfectly polite here, but she
feels no honor in seeing Lady C. here. The irony goes
right over the Lady’s head, however.]

“Miss Bennett,” replied her ladyship, in an angry tone,
“you ought to know, that I am not to be trifled with.
But however insincere you may choose to be, you shall
not find me so. My character has ever been celebrated
for its sincerity and frankness, and in a cause of such
moment as this, I shall certainly not depart from
it….”

[Randy sez: It’s typical of Lady C. that she
characterizes her own amazing rudeness as “sincerity
and frankness”. As we noted last month, everybody
thinks they’re the good guy. Lady C. interprets
Lizzie’s ignorance of the rumor as “insincerity”
because she assumes Lizzie knows as much as she does.]

“… A report of a most alarming nature, reached me two
days ago. I was told, that not only your sister was on
the point of being most advantageously married, but that
you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all
likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my
own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a
scandalous falsehood; though I would not injure him so
much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I
instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that
I might make my sentiments known to you.”

“If you believed it impossible to be true,” said
Elizabeth, colouring with astonishment and disdain, “I
wonder you took the trouble of coming so far. What
could your ladyship propose by it?”

[Randy sez: Touche, Lizzie! You’ve called her an idiot
while affecting to be concerned for the trouble the
lady has gone to.]

“At once to insist upon having such a report
universally contradicted.”

“Your coming to Longbourn, to see me and my family,”
said Elizabeth coolly, “will be rather a confirmation
of it; if, indeed, such a report is in existence.”

“If! do you then pretend to be ignorant of it? Has it
not been industriously circulated by yourselves? Do you
not know that such a report is spread abroad?”

“I never heard that it was.”

[Randy sez: Lizzie has scored another point by noting
the obvious fact that Lady C.’s visit will only fan the
flames of this rumor. Again, her subtext is that Lady
Catherine is a fool. Here, it feels like the two are
reading from different scripts. Lady Catherine assumes
Lizzie is behind the rumor. But Lizzie really has never
heard of the rumor — though she welcomes it.]

“And can you likewise declare, that there is no
foundation for it?”

“I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your
ladyship. You may ask questions, which I shall choose
not to answer.”

[Randy sez: The subtext of Lady C. is that Lizzie is so
low-born that such a marriage is not even possible.
This is an insult and is not true. Lizzie is the
daughter of a gentleman and has the same social
standing as Darcy, only less wealthy. Lizzie picks up
the word “frankness” from Lady C. and with heavy irony
uses it as a replacement for “rudeness”.]

“This is not to be borne. Miss Bennett, I insist on
being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an
offer of marriage?”

“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”

[Randy sez: Lizzie scores a direct hit. Only an idiot
would ask if an impossible thing has occurred. But
again, it’s subtext. Lizzie politely reminds Lady
Catherine of what she said earlier.]

“It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the
use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may,
in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what
he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have
drawn him in.”

“If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it.”

[Randy sez: Lady C.’s subtext is, “Lizzie, you’re just
a slut who lured my poor nephew in.” Lizzie’s subtext
is, “You’re an idiot to think a slut would admit to
such a thing.” The ground is bloody here with subtexted
insults. We skip the next couple of paragraphs to get
to more subtext.]

“Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you
have the presumption to aspire, can never take place.
No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now
what have you to say?”

“Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to
suppose he will make an offer to me.”

[Randy sez: Again, Lady C.’s subtext is that Lizzie is
a conniving little home-breaker. Lizzie’s subtext is
that Lady Catherine is irrational, since Darcy is an
honorable man who would never make an offer to one
woman while engaged to another. But Lizzie holds a high
card here that she hasn’t shown Lady Catherine. Darcy
has already proposed to Lizzie some months earlier, and
she rejected him then. So Lizzie knows that Darcy’s
“engagement” to Lady Catherine’s daughter is no
engagement at all.]

The scene goes on for a few more pages, but we’ll let
it rest here. Lizzie has won this battle — decisively.
Note how restrained her words have been. Lizzie does
not need the F-word, the B-word, the A-word, or the
S-word. She uses her wits and a forceful subtext to
deflect the full frontal assault of Lady Catherine’s
wrath.

The scene is all the more powerful for it.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 5000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com . Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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