Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues by Margie Lawson

Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #16:  Adding Subtext with Dialogue Cues by Margie Lawson

A big thank you to Writers in the Storm for permission to reprint this fabulous article by the incomparable Margie LawsonMargie’s Rule #16 originally appeared here.

People talking StockSnap_DJWZ40JPWN

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.

*  *  *  *  *  *


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


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