Dialogue Derives from Subtext

Every “will they, or won’t they?” scene has one obvious thing in common—two people. What is more subtle is the tension scripted into their subtext. As the audience watches and wonders what will come, or even contemplates what should have happened, the one certainty is that the viewers are emotionally invested in the characters on stage. The tension is palpable, but that emerges first and foremost from the dialogue we’ve committed to a page. As writers, our job is to produce scripts that connect with our audience’s humanity in ways that both surprise them and affirm the essential truths that all know to be true. Life is complicated, and many people struggle to say exactly what they mean to say. Our audience will read between the literal and symbolic lines we produce because the actual depth of dialogue emerges from what’s left unspoken.

The heart of the script beats in rhythm with the characters’ actions. Actors bring our words to life by exploring the ideas we’ve each imagined for them. In every scene where two or more characters are on stage, an actor recognizes the best action based upon how it will affect whomever they are acting with. Yet, what makes speaking lines especially enjoyable for the actors and audience is the wordplay embedded within what they are saying. While there are some excellent, oft-quoted one-liners in many famous works, careful study reveals that those lines pack a full wallop because of the scene in which they were scripted. In effect, the single lines don’t stand on their own, rather they offer a cap to the action being produced. Of course, those moments emerge from carefully crafted subtext driven by the characters’ evolving motivations. Audiences love trying to guess what will happen next, and actors love being a part of a subtle reveal.

While it is true that much storytelling is centered around tension, not all storytelling is the same. Curve Lake Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor notes that “European drama is based on conflict. The story progresses through conflict, information is perceived through conflict.” Taylor contends that Native writing is different because Indigenous storytelling is traditionally a winter family affair, with the content of those stories reflecting the need for harmony within the community encamped together for the season. Taylor states, “Overt or aggressive conflict was actively and urgently discouraged within the family group and this manifested itself within stories too. A lot of the traditional legends are more narrative than dramatic—the hero goes on a journey but he doesn’t have to fight his way through, or slay dragons to get to the end . . . conflict was discouraged within our community, and as a result our stories reflect that.” Although we can write about how tensions come to a head between adversaries on a war-torn battlefield, we can also explore how they arise between lovers during an otherwise mundane night in their own home.

One of my favorite activities is to ask students to write about a committed couple having a heated exchange about something other than the topic at hand. A favored scenario of mine is one where a farmer and his wife are having dinner with their young children. As their offspring listen, the parents debate over whether or not to try to conceive another child without the little ones realizing the actual substance of their discussion. While the farmer may assert the benefits of adding another “member to their herd,” his wife may retort that “the barn is already full.” The farmer could then remind his wife “newborns sure are cute,” and she may retort “not when they wake up the whole farm in the middle of the night.” The upshot is that the audience can watch a humorous scene, enjoy the double extendres, and even speculate about which side is advancing a stronger argument.

“Will they, or won’t they?” The answer to that question is best left to each individual writer. As we script the resolution to the tensions that we’ve created, we must remember that our actors and their audience will soon be invested in the scenes we produce. The writer, the actors, and the audience all play a role in every theatrical production, but the work of the latter two is built on the foundation of the former. Giving our dialogue subtext helps our story find firm footing on the world’s stage. While our patrons can’t always peek behind the curtain, we can be certain they try to read between the lines.

Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.


Bruder, M. (1986). A Practical Handbook for the Actor. New York: Vintage.

Taylor, D.H. (2000). Alive and Well: Native Theatre in Canada, American Indian Theater in Performance: A Reader. H. Geiogamah & J.T. Darby, Eds. Los Angeles: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 256-264.

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