In literature, dialogue is all about subtext. What's not being said. What's read between the lines, literally. Learning how to write effective subtext may be the best thing you can do to make your dialogue shine.
Think this is only for fiction writers? Think again. Subtext exists in all genres.
Here's a real-life scenario (not mine but a friend's): A family at the holiday dinner. The college freshman is home, bursting to share her news about a year abroad. She's nervous, because her brother is also home for the holidays, and her brother traditionally gets the most attention.
But, brave girl, she begins anyway.
"Mom, Dad, I have something really important to tell you."
"Heather," her mother interrupts, "pass the peas to your brother. He's not eating enough."
The girl tries a few more times. And the parents keep derailing, deflecting. What's the subtext? Somewhat lame example, yes, unless you are that girl. Or those parents.
What's going on here--that's what we'd think if we read this on the page. It would increase tension. It might make us read on to find out. They've just had a big fight? They're broke, and don't know how to tell their daughter no year abroad is in the offing? They are afraid the daughter is pregnant and they don't want to hear?
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
As with any dialogue skill, tuning your ear is the first step. Holidays are stellar for snapping up subtext in real-life dialogue.
Listen for subtext in holiday conversations these next few weeks; see what you catch. Train your ear to hear this all-important undercurrent.
Then read this good overview from the Gotham Writers' Workshop folks, to learn more about how to add subtext to your writing.