Writers in the Storm

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August 5, 2016

Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues  

Margie Lawson

When people talk, subtext happens.

Every time.

You can’t say one word without sharing subtext.

Subtext for dialogue: The psychological message behind the words.

When the words and the subtext are incongruent, the truth is in the subtext.

In the real world, we factor in subtext all the time.

On the page, we need subtext to make scenes rich and credible.

If you’re writing a scene with strong emotional content, you need to include plenty of subtext.

This blog focuses on subtext for dialogue. Not the we've-read-it-too-often ways to describe how the character said the words. Those overused descriptors are predictable. Skimmable.

I’m referring to what I call dialogue cues.

Dialogue Cues – My term. Here’s how dialogue cues fit in ways to tag dialogue.

Margie’s Five Categories for Tagging Dialogue:

  1. Basic Attributions:  Said and asked
  2. Action Tags:  Tags dialogue with action. Doesn’t share anything about the voice
  3. Body Language Tags:  Tags dialogue with facial expressions or body language
  4. Dialogue Tags:  Shares something about the voice, but these are often overused, like murmured, boomed, resonated, said harshly, said with a razor-sharp edge.
  5. Dialogue Cues: Describe how the words are delivered. They inform the reader how to interpret the message behind the words, the psychological nuances.

Digging deeper into dialogue cues.

They’re fresh. They carry interest.

They often deepen characterization. They may add a hit of humor.

Let’s dive in and analyze some dialogue cues.

Note:  Power Words – Words that carry psychological power.

Kennedy Ryan, Loving You Always, Immersion-grad

Loving You Always1. “Walsh!” Meredith’s voice snapped a warning, like twigs underfoot.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: snapped, warning
  • Simile
  • Compelling Cadence

2. His voice was a dull-edged knife slicing clumsily through her heart, fiber by bloody fiber. Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out. She would have preferred a quick cut, but he just kept talking.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: knife, slicing, heart bloody, dull, slow, imprecise, drawn out, quick cut
  • Amplification
  • Fresh Writing
  • Sentence Frag: Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out.
  • Deepens relationship
  • Rhetorical Device: polysyndeton -- Dull and slow and imprecise and drawn out.
  • Compelling Cadence

Kimberly Belle, The Ones We Trust, 4-time Immersion-grad

The Ones We TrustHe’s taking care to keep his tone flippant, but I can hear something darker pushing up from under the words, something much more honest and true, as if maybe he’s testing the waters, checking how I will respond.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: care, flippant, darker, pushing, honest, true, testing, checking
  • Fresh Writing
  • Deepens relationship
  • Compelling Cadence
  • Amplified Five Times
  1. something darker
  2. pushing up from under the words
  3. something much more honest and true
  4. as if maybe he’s testing the waters
  5. checking how I will respond

The Marriage Lie, by 4-time Immersion-Grad Kimberly Belle

The Marriage LieThe Marriage Lie will be released in December.

1. “Don’t you want to get that?” Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a serrated knife.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: girlish, slices, silence, knife
  • Backloaded with Power Word: knife
  • Fresh Writing
  • Compelling Cadence – Read the dialogue cue sentence OUT LOUD:

Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a serrated knife.

Now read it OUT LOUD without the word serrated:

Claire’s voice is high and girlish, and it slices through the silence like a knife.

Hear the missing beats before knife?

The sentence with serrated has a much stronger cadence.

2. I scream back, the words fueled by fury and frustration.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: scream, fueled, fury, frustration
  • Rhetorical Device – alliteration
  • Compelling cadence
  • Backloaded with Power Word -- frustration

3. “True, but my guilty conscience and I wanted you to hear it here first. To make sure you understood the implications.”

"I try to take his emotional pulse, but his eyes are hidden behind dark wraparound sunglasses, his tone and expression guarded. "

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: emotional, pulse, hidden, guarded Rhetorical Device – alliteration
  • Backloaded with Power Word: guarded

4. Her speech is slow and syrupy, and I'm pretty sure she's stoned.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Word: Stoned
  • Rhetorical Device – alliteration – speech, slow, syrupy, sure, she’s, stoned
  • Backloaded with Power Word: Stoned.
  • Compelling Cadence

5. "Iris, if you need any help, I'm happy to--"

"I'm fine." I grimace and pump an I-got-this confidence into my tone. "Thanks, Evan, but don't worry. I'll figure something out."

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Dialogue Cue for POV character describing how she’ll imbue fake confidence in her next sentence.
  • Hyphenated-Run-On: I-got-this
  • Power Words: grimace, pump, confidence, worry

6. "Look, I don't know where the money is. I didn’t even know about it until a few days ago."

"Of course, you have no idea." His words agree, but not his tone. His tone says that I know where the money is, and he'll make good on his threat if he has to.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Tells incongruence between words and tone
  • Tone is interpreted, amplified
  • Power Words: agree, money, make good, threat

6.  There's pity in her voice now, and I can't listen to it for another second.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words: pity, can’t listen
  • Shares how dialogue cue impacts POV character
  • Compelling Cadence.

Like Father Not Son, Kristin Meachem, 3-time Immersion-Grad

Like Father Not Son is not yet published, but I trust it will be.

1. “I didn’t see your mother at the church.” Jen’s words are sharp enough to cut and disembowel.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: sharp, cut, disembowel
  • Backloaded with Power Word: disembowel
  • Compelling Cadence

2.“What do we do now?” Tom’s voice teeters on the edge of tough and frail, unsure which way to fall.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: teeters, tough, frail, unsure, fall
  • Backloaded with Power Word: fall
  • Deepens characterization
  • Deepens relationship
  • Compelling Cadence

3. “Good to know. You’re fine.” There’s as much concern in my voice as a nurse finishing a twelve-hour shift.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: concern, twelve-hour shift
  • Shares sarcasm without using the word sarcasm or sarcastic.
  • Humor Hit

4. Liz’s voice is soothing, like a soul singer encouraging you to enjoy the rhythm and the ride.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: soothing, soul, rhythm, ride
  • Double Alliteration: soothing, soul singer; rhythm, ride
  • Compelling Cadence

5. "Good for you." Her words give me a standing ovation, but her tone says I'm a full-sized prick.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: standing ovation, prick
  • Backloaded with Power Word: prick
  • Compelling Cadence
  • Deepens relationship
  • Humor Hit

6. “This isn’t about permission. This is about Tom’s happiness.” She coiled her tongue around the last ss’ and spit them out with the aggression of a cornered snake.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Shares incongruence between dialogue and subtext
  • Power Words: coiled, spit, aggression, cornered, snake
  • Backloaded with Power Word: snake
  • Rhetorical Device: simile
  • Compelling Cadence

Carry Me Home, Dorothy Adamek, 4-time Immersion-Grad

Carry Me Home1.Clipped and cool, his words hardly matched his mission.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Rhetorical Device: Double Alliteration: clipped, cool; matched, mission
  • Shared incongruence between words and subtext
  • Compelling Cadence

2.  Her voice trembled and her words sounded less confident than she’d intended.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: trembled, less confident
  • Shares POV character’s emotional state

3. His voice remained low, but the look in his eyes curdled her blood faster than any scream.

Deep Edit Analysis: 

  • Power Words: curdled, blood, scream
  • Backloaded with Power Word: scream
  • Compelling Cadence

4. This example is two paragraphs.

“Don’t be so sure of what you can’t see, Miss Mayfield. Some battles are fought against unseen tethers.” His voice remained low, but soft. Soft enough to creep through the shadows and deep into her.

He’d loosened the end of a coil she’d pressed to her ribs since the day they’d met. Not enough for the coil to unravel. But just enough to start the damage.

Deep Edit Analysis – for the two sentences that carry the dialogue cues.

  • Power Words: creep, shadows, deep into her
  • Amplification
  • Rhetorical Device: Anadiplosis …soft. Soft…

I included the second paragraph to show how Dorothy Adamek used a dialogue cue to show the relationship intensifying.

Blog Guests -- Now you have some ideas about adding power with dialogue cues.

Kudos to mega-talented Immersion grads Kimberly Belle, Kennedy Ryan, Kristin Meachem, and Dorothy Adamek. Impressive writing.

Thank you for taking the time to drop by WITS blog today.

Post a comment, and you have TWO CHANCES to WIN! 

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If the avalanche of comments on this blog WOW me, I’ll double the winners!

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Check out the courses offered by Lawson Writer's Academy in September:

1. Story Structure Safari, Instructor: Lisa Miller

2. Developmental Edits, Instructor: Rhay Christou

3. Revision Boot Camp, Instructor: Suzanne Purvis

4. 30 Days to a Stronger Novel, Instructor: Lisa Wells

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6. Five-Week First Draft , Sept. 26 to Oct. 31st -- Instructor: Koreen Myers

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About Margie

Margie Lawson Head shotMargie Lawson—editor, international presenter—teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over a hundred  full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Denver, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Canyon Lake, Dallas, San Jose, Albuquerque, Australia, and more), her full day Master Class presentations, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.margielawson.com.


96 comments on “Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues  ”

    1. Hello Mary --

      Thank you! I'm guessing you didn't know about my dialogue cues before you read the blog.

      I teach an online course that has a couple hundred pages of lectures on:

      --- Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist.

      That course isn't on the schedule until next spring. But the lectures are available through Paypal on my website.

      Thanks for being the first to post!

  1. Thanks, Margie, for reinforcing the learnings from the January Phoenix 2016 Immersion.

    1. Hello Stephanie --

      Glad you liked this tiny taste of deep editing. If you'd like to learn more, drop by my website and check out my lecture packets. You'll learn dozens of ways to add power to your writing!

  2. Thank you so much. Subtext is something I revere in the work of other writers, but realize I have not given it much attention in my own work - Duh! thank you!

    1. Marcianne --

      That's a smart duh. 🙂

      You may want to consider my lecture packets. They're loaded with hundreds of pages of examples, deep editing analyses, and teaching points. Dozens of learning opportunities!

  3. Being lucky enough to be a 'critter' of Kimberly Belle, I can attest to her awesome 'cue ability'! Sometimes I have to stop reading to read them over again...so fresh, so true.

    She's amazeballs.

    Oh, and, The Marriage Lie? You have GOT to read it! The end!!!! I went back and forth hoping....

    Nope, no spoilers here. Just trust me - you HAVE to read this book!

    1. Laura --

      You and Kimberly Belle are both mega-talented and multi-Immersion-grads. You're perfectly matched crit partners!

      Can't wait to see you again at the WFWA Retreat in Albuquerque, next month!

  4. Hello Margie.
    I love all the wonderful examples.Your posts always jump start my creativity. Here's one of my cues.
    His tone was as slippery as a salamander sliding through grease.

  5. You have just opened my eyes to a new world. I love writing dialogue, but usually play it safe by sticking to "said" and "asked" with a few shrugs and nods. I can't wait to apply this approach. Thank you!

    1. Hello Carol --

      You must be new to my psychologically based deep editing. Check out the lecture packets on my website.

      This blog is a baby bite of one dish from my deep editing smorgasbord that runs from New York City to San Francisco.

      Lots of new editing ideas in the hundreds of pages of lectures in my Big Three courses and lecture packets.

      Now you know!

  6. "As always, Margie, you are simply awesome with suggestions and illustrations. I'm sure that associating with dachshunds has played a large part in your experience," he said, with a look that spoke of late night snacks shared in abundance with a furry companion.

    no, no, Nitro. Bad boy! -- Er, thanks, Margie. Great advice.

    1. Hello Christine --

      Thank you!

      Mini highlighters. Ah -- you're EDITS System highlighting. Smart!

      Hope I get to see you in an online class sometime. I'm teaching Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts in October. Nudge. Nudge. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the wonderful post, Margie. Subtext is one of the techniques I'm working on in my writing and you've given great examples.

  8. As a dyed-in-the-wool Margie follower, I've been devouring these tips for years. Imagine my surprise to see a term (new to me) that justifies a technique that seemed to appear naturally in my writing every now and then--but I've been editing out, thinking it was a stumbling block to readers. The Rhetorical Device: Anadiplosis …soft. Soft… Well, now I know it's there for good reason. Happy Dance! Thanks, Margie!

    1. Hello Jaye --

      So cool that you learned the rhetorical technique you've been using has a name, anadiplosis, and that it adds power to your writing.

      I teach writers 30 rhetorical devices in my Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More class. It's one of my Big Three online courses for fiction writers.

      When you have a few free minutes, click over to my website and check out the lecture packets. Lots of learning opps in the hundreds of pages of lectures in my Big Three courses. Enjoy!

  9. Margie, I found you on line a couple of years ago, and since then have devoured every lecture packet I could get. My writing improved with every one! I REALLY want to participate in a deep immersion class one day soon....coming to the Southeast this year?????? I also took one on line class on beats which I loved, but I covet an immersion experience!

    1. Hello Sandy R --

      I want to meet you! I'm teaching an Immersion class at Lake Lanier, about an hour from Atlanta, but that class is full.

      I have openings in some Immersion classes in Colorado next year. I hope you can work it out.

      I'm teaching VISCERAL RULES: BEYOND HAMMERING HEARTS in October. Have you taken that class? Maybe I'll see you there.

    1. Hello Anna --

      Have fun applying what you learned about dialogue cues.

      Keep in mind I teach a course called: WRITING BODY LANGUAGE AND DIALOGUE CUES LIKE A PSYCHOLOGIST. I'm not teaching it online again until May. But the lecture packet is available through my website. It's loaded with a couple hundred pages of examples and teaching points.

  10. Love your posts. Always informative and inspiring. This one came as a just-in-time kick in the pants. Putting the icing on my WIP, so this advice (and the amazing examples) will go far in helping me evolve from a storyteller to a "story shower." That's show-er, not like an April shower. BTW, it was great to meet you at RWA 2016 in San Diego. Your workshop knocked my socks off. And breakfast was unforgettable. Thanks!

    1. Hey Chris --

      So fun to meet you at breakfast in San Diego!

      Glad my workshop on writing fresh character descriptions hooked you. Hope to see you in an online class. I'm teaching VISCERAL RULES: BEYOND HAMMERING HEARTS in October. 🙂

  11. Margie...This could not have come at a better time for me. I am in the process of the first revision of my WIP and will definitely be going back through the pages to find places where I can pump up the subtext. Thanks so much.

    1. Beverly --

      Thanks for letting me know you'll use what you learned in this little blog. Consider my lecture packets. Hundreds of more deep editing tips and techniques!

  12. I always love these posts, as they never fail to teach me something new. SUCH an honor to see some of my own words up there. Thank you, Margie!! <3

  13. I love these examples and always find inspiration. It's so easy to slip into the rut if routine and go for the familiar. I live that you inspire us to work harder and more powerfully. Thank you!



    I'm 15 - 18 hours ahead of those in the U.S. It's almost 2:00 A.M. here in Melbourne.

    I'll be back online in about 8 hours. I'll respond to posts then.

    BTW -- I'm teaching four 5-day Immersion classes down under. Two in Melbourne, one in Sydney, and one in Brisbane. Lots of fun times ahead!

    Now you know why I won't be back here for hours.

    Thanks for dropping by WITS! Be sure and post a reply so you can be in the drawing for online classes!

  15. Margie, every time I take your class I learn something new, or remember something you've already taught me. Thanks for sharing these examples and striking a new fire in me.

  16. I always learn something new from your posts, Margie. Even though I've taken all of your classes, including two Immersions. Even though I've finaled in the Golden Heart twice. Even though I've been writing for years! (See, I do pay attention! :))
    Even with all that, I find something new and exciting each time. Maybe I wasn't listening the first time around?
    Have a grand time in Australia!

    1. Hello 2-time Immersion-Grad Sarah/Sally!

      Love your anaphora!

      Glad this blog hooked you. Stay hooked on dialogue cues.

      Thank you. I am having the most grand time in Melbourne!

  17. On your first Cruising Writers trip, I was shocked that I could not find one single dialogue cue in forty pages of my WIP! I had been doing everything BUT dialogue cues. I am working to fix that omission, but, I have to admit, dialogue cues are still my weak suit. But not for long! Thank you so much for this lesson, Margie.

    1. I noticed that exact thing when I took Margie's immersion course. I was telling the story through dialogue ONLY. No cues. That's a lot of work to add in - I know, I've been doing it. Hats off to you, Fae!!

    2. Hello Fae!

      Yikes! I know you'll master dialogue cues! Can't wait to see you twice in October -- at OCC RWA and at my house for another Immersion class!

  18. Thank you for your inspiration and expertise Margie. I've taken several of your classes both this summer and a few years ago. I think I need to take this one again!

  19. Just when you think your dialogue and the tags are good, you read an article like this one. Thank you. It motivates me to strive harder to write better!

  20. Hi Margie! (It was great to see you at RWA, even though I'm "too tall." 😉 )

    Always great to get your insights, and I'm a sucker for subtext, so this is wonderful! I glanced through my WIP open on my desktop, and here's an example from page 2:

    Her former-roommate put on her sunglasses and finally checked out the building in front of them. “This is the place, huh?”
    Her voice lifted on the last word, probably in an attempt to disguise her disappointed-teacher tone.

  21. I live for the next Margie post on Writers in the Storm, and Margie, you never fail to impress. Even fresh from another Immersion, I eat up every new example you share as if savoring dark chocolate truffles. And dialogue cues are much easier on the waistline. Enjoy Australia, and give a big hug to Kristin for me.

  22. Oh boy, is it evident after reading this post Margie that I need this class. Spring eh? Did I see that you teach in Phoenix? That would be cool. Well, not now, it's way too hot. But later, during the winter months would be a great time to come. Thank you Margie for this post and have a wonderful time In the Land Down Under!! 🙂

  23. Thanks for more great information, Margie. I'm still working through the Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues. One day, I hope this becomes second nature in my writing. Thanks for all the great techniques I didn't know existed until earlier this year.

    1. Hi Waldo! Great to see you here. I hope you've written a lot of words since our time with Margie at the Writers Academy at Texas A & M in June. Yes, I was the one who got sent out of the room on a daily basis...

  24. So glad you've landed in our beautiful country, Margie! We missed you. What a joy to have you back.

    And thank you for including my words, shaped by YOUR wisdom. You're always there, on my shoulder, nudging me to do better and better. Love you lots. xoxo

  25. Thank you for a new angle on dialogue. Very interesting! I have a question for general response. How did other writers learn to write strictly in 3rd close? To avoid sliding into 3rd omniscient, which uses the same pronouns? I'd especially love to hear form anybody who's been published. (I'm deep in editorialy mandated revisions & having real doubts.) Thanks!

    1. Julia, I'm not an expert, and Margie should weigh in, but the way I do it is to get inside the character's skin and write from there. Show what's going on inside them. Instead of, "She watched the wounded man crawl across the floor." You'd get, "Harvey's fingers dug into the carpet, pulling himself by sheer will alone. Her core tightened, her fingers spasmed in a hopeless attempt to help."

      See the difference?

  26. Thanks Margie - love the explanation and examples and some great ideas how to get past skimmable dialogue tags. Great to see what to rather than just a list of what not to do 🙂 Looking forward to the immersion class in Brisbane.

  27. There's something deliciously sneaky about whipping words from your quiver and shooting them off to your mark ... an innocent reader. The emotion you aimed for lingers. But they don't even know what hit them!

    I think I've been searching for these substantial reinforcements a long time, Margie. I have written a historical trilogy - indie published and selling well. But that inner niggle nudges me to find the fabulous and the 'unputdownable'.

    You have given me an overwhelming thirst.

  28. Hi, I've read a lot of advice for writers and this is the first time I come across the idea of a deep edit analysis of dialogue. You can be sure that I will add it to my editing process. Thanks. Helpful post.

  29. Love your examples. And I love your analysis. I always learn more when I see how you analyze passages.

  30. I love how when you study this stuff (with the fabulous Margie Lawson!) and use these tools, after a while it starts happening on first drafts—not just edits. This is totally first draft stuff on a short story I'm writing, but here are two separate examples from one chapter (Mom's an event planner):

    "A second? You unbuckled for a second?" Her volume had increased. Right up to her across-the-room, Don’t put the candles there! voice I’d heard pre-events. "Do you have any idea how quickly terrible things can happen?"

    “Mom, he didn’t mean to—”
    “And yet, he did.” Her tone cut me off, dagger-like in its delivery.

    Anyway, thanks! I love when great writing craft I've learned sinks in like this. Not that I don't still Deep Edit... I do.

    1. That's the really cool thing about Margie, Julie - isn't it? After a while, it just flows out of your fingers! Well, maybe not that easy, but...

  31. And these kind of posts are why I keep doing immersion over and over again. I always learn something new, even though I think I know most of it to start with. I never know as much as I think.

  32. This was really helpful. My favorite is, "This isn't about permission. This is about Tom's happiness." The description of the s's makes me hear the hiss.

  33. I so needed this refresher on dialogue cues! I'm going through revisions and the main thing in have to edit are my dialogue cues! By making some tweaks and using them to really dive into deeper emotion, I'm bringing to life a whole wealth of conflict that was previously buried! Thanks, Margie for another fabulous (and timely) post!!

  34. Hi Margie, so pleased your'e back with us down-under. Thank you for the deep edit analyses - gets the enthusiasm bubbling every time. Would have loved to have joined in again but I'm hoping for a next time. Wendy Leslie - First Immersion Sister in Oz.

  35. As always, great stuff, Margie. I hear you'll be in Austin in October. Hoping I can get back to Texas to be there and re-fresh these techniques. If I win the lottery, I'll join you for the intensive in Colorado. Thanks for sharing.

  36. After these posts, I an always more energized, and feel a lot more empowered, about tackling revisions. The line "You can’t say one word without sharing subtext" is enough food for thought for the next week alone. Thank you!

  37. It was so good to meet you in the breakfast line at RWA, Margie! I'm working on a first draft now but can't wait to apply the teaching from the lecture packets I've purchased. I hope to take an online class soon and some day go to an immersion class. Love the examples!


    So many comments were posted. You all WOWED me!

    I'm doubling the number of WINNERS!

    Two people will win lecture packets. Two will win online courses.

    Winners of the lecture packets: Rebecca Hodge and Beverly Turner.

    Winners of the online courses: Christine Lashinski and Kelly Miller.

    Becky, Beverly, Christine, and Kelly -- Please email me!

    Thanks to all for posting!

    If you have questions about the online courses or my Immersion Master Classes, please contact me.

    If you don't receive my NEWSLETTER, please drop by my website and sign up.


    One NEWSLETTER SUBSCRIBER WILL receive a voucher for $100 off an Immersion Master Class.

    Another BIG THANK YOU to WITS for having me on their blog!

  39. As usual, this is excellent, clearly stated advice for all writers. I've shared generously online. All the best, everyone!

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