How to Create Tension with Dialogue and Subtext

How to Create Tension with Dialogue

How to Create Tension with Dialogue and Subtext

Tension—the friction or obstacles that keep your characters from what they want—engenders narrative unease in the reader; human nature craves resolution of it. Creating and sustaining tension throughout your story is one of the most effective ways to keep your readers turning pages to see it resolved, and you have a powerful tool for doing so with every line of dialogue your characters speak.

Think of the average exchanges in your daily life:

  • “Mom, have you seen my favorite blue shirt?”…“It’s in the laundry, where you left it.”
  • “What’s for dinner?”…“I don’t know; I just got home too.”
  • “I was hoping we could schedule my employee evaluation today.”…“How about if I help you get these deals closed before the end of Q2 and then we can talk about that?”

What makes each of these exchanges carry a spark of tension is the friction between the words actually said and the depths of subtext that lie underneath. Each of the first sentences, at face value, is pretty straightforward: a request, overt or implied, for information or action.

But the response suggests the other character is hearing something different from simply what is said—and reflects their underlying feelings about that thing, rather than the other character’s actual words.

Let’s dig into the first exchange as an example. The child speaking is looking for his favorite shirt—which may suggest he wants to wear that one for a specific reason that’s important to him: Maybe there’s someone he wants to impress, or he has a presentation at school he’s nervous about and wants to shore up his confidence, or he’s having a low day and needs a pick-me-up, or he’s having a terrific day and wants to wear something he loves.

But in his seemingly innocent question his mother may have heard something else that hits a nerve: the suggestion that she’s not doing enough as a mother, or the implication that she’s at his beck and call, or the worry that she’s created a spoiled boy who may grow into the kind of entitled man her ex-husband is.

Her response also seems straightforward, but it too suggests an undercurrent of additional meaning: that her child never cleans up his own things, or that she’s sick and tired of being everyone’s cleaning lady, or maybe that she prides herself on always solving problems and expertly managing her family.

That disconnect between what the speaker says and what the listener hears—and what subtext each is hitting on—is where powerful potential for tension lies, and you can continue to sustain and build on it with dialogue throughout your scenes.

The disconnect between what the speaker says and what the listener hears—and what subtext each is hitting on—is where powerful potential for tension lies, and you can continue to sustain and build on it with dialogue throughout your scenes.

Perhaps the son is nervous or excited about someone at school he likes and wants to ask out today, and his mom’s reply hits on a familiar chord of what he perceives as her nagging him about being lazy…which undercuts his confidence and makes him feel infantilized or put-down, and he reacts sullenly or yells at her…a knee-jerk reaction to what he feels is her constant judgment of him.

She takes that response as his being ungrateful for all she does for him, or being disrespectful, or treating her like a servant—and she upbraids him for it.

To the son this might feel like piling on more judgment—he can’t do anything right!—and he storms back to his room, slamming the door, where he realizes the shirt is indeed dirty and wrinkled on the floor where he left it. Maybe part of him feels ashamed—his mother is right; he’s lazy and stupid. Why would the kid he has a crush on ever want to go out with him? He pulls on a crappy old T-shirt—what’s the point?

His mom, out in the kitchen also feeling guilty for the exchange, or perhaps heartsick at how distant they’ve grown, has made her son his favorite breakfast as a peace offering, and when he comes back out of his room she notices his holey T-shirt and says kindly, “Oh, honey, you can’t wear that—why don’t you bring me that maroon shirt that looks so nice with your eyes and I’ll iron it for you?”

This perceived attack on his appearance again is like a knife in the son’s already shaken self-image—even his mom thinks he’s a loser. His eyes fill with tears that make him feel like a sissy. “I hate you!” he screams, and storms out of the kitchen for school, leaving his mom devastated and bewildered by the scorn and disregard she feels from the son who used to cuddle in her lap and tell her how much he loved her.

Language is a powerful tool for communicating, but it can so easily be used, inadvertently or not, for miscommunication as well, a great source of narrative tension. What is said versus what your character hears can create inherent friction and microtension.

Language is a powerful tool for communicating, but it can so easily be used, inadvertently or not, for miscommunication as well, a great source of narrative tension.

We say much more than our words when we communicate with others. Dialogue can—and often should—be rich with this kind of context and subtext:

  • what we say versus what we actually mean (“Is that what you’re wearing?”)
  • what we say versus what the speaker hears (“Did you take the trash out?” may sound to a spouse like, “You never do what I ask” or “You’re lazy,” or maybe he even tunes it out entirely.)
  • how we say something (“Are you going to eat that?” “Are you going to eat that?” Are you going to eat that?”)
  • the language we choose (“Your room needs cleaning” versus “Your room is a pigsty.”)
  • what we don’t say (“I love you.” “Thank you.”)

And don’t forget the power not just of the words themselves, but tone, demeanor, expression, and other nonverbals.

You can even create this kind of tension within a character’s own dialogue, for instance in the time-honored Southern classic: “Well, how could she have learned any better with the upbringing she had? Bless her heart.” The friction between the ostensible sympathy of the words (and presumably tone) against the clear subtext of condescension and judgment creates a delicious sense of narrative tension.

Readers still need context and backstory filled in to fully understand the tension in dialogue—authors are more than screenwriters; they must be actor, director, and cinematographer too.

But when skillfully incorporated with those elements, dialogue can convey so much about your characters, their relationships, their situation, their motivations and vulnerabilities and desires, and the world they live in—and can be one of the most useful ways to keep the thread of narrative tension taut, pulling your readers forward throughout the story.

Over to you authors: Do you notice the subtexts, miscommunications, and little frictions of everyday conversation? (Thanksgiving dinner could be a great time to start…!) What are some of your favorite ways to use dialogue to help create that tension in your writing?

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