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The Rela­tion­ship Between Dia­logue and Sub­text in Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing


“Good dia­logue,” writes British tele­vi­sion pro­ducer John Yorke in Into the Woods, “con­veys how a char­ac­ter wants to be seen while betray­ing the flaws they want to hide.”&³1; To be effec­tive, dia­logue sim­ply needs to cre­ate dis­par­ity between a character’s inte­rior and exte­rior selves, which in turn cre­ates what is known as sub­text, which, accord­ing to Yorke, “emerges from the inter­ac­tion between a character’s façade and their actual inten­tion or goal.”&³2; Of course, all writ­ers would be inter­ested in writ­ing com­plex, sophis­ti­cated dia­logue that doesn’t sim­ply advance the plot but instead reveals a character’s inner dilemma and thus cre­ates a more three-dimen­sional char­ac­ter. How­ever, as many writ­ers have no doubt dis­cov­ered, this aspect of craft can be very dif­fi­cult to effec­tively pull off effec­tively. For writ­ers look­ing for an exam­ple of mas­ter­ful dia­logue, they need look no fur­ther than Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing.” I intend to exam­ine the rela­tion­ship between dia­logue and sub­text, pro­vid­ing speci­fic exam­ples from “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing,” as well as broad­en­ing the dis­cus­sion to include tech­niques writ­ers can use to improve this rela­tion­ship between dia­logue and sub­text in their own sto­ries.

“Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing” fol­lows an unnamed nar­ra­tor who, under the influ­ence of drugs, hitch­hikes a ride from a fam­ily in an Oldsmo­bile even though he knows there will be “an acci­dent in the storm.”&³3; In the back­seat, the nar­ra­tor drifts off to sleep, still groggy from the drugs. Despite being asleep, he “[dreams he is] look­ing right through [his] eye­lids, and [his] pulse [marks] off the sec­onds of time.“⁴ He even­tu­ally drifts off to a deeper sleep, but wakes up when the acci­dent occurs, just as he knew it would. At first, it seems as though the nar­ra­tor “[is] the only one conscious,“⁵ but soon the fam­ily in the Oldsmo­bile wakes up and look to the nar­ra­tor for answers, although he starts ask­ing ques­tions him­self. He’s even­tu­ally taken to the hos­pi­tal, where he refuses an X-ray and, years later, begins hear­ing voices from boxes of cot­ton.

The foun­da­tion for sub­text is pro­vided at the begin­ning of the story, when the narrator’s fore­sight is estab­lished. When he wakes up beside an entrance ramp to the high­way, hav­ing been left there by a col­lege stu­dent who drove a “VW no more than a bub­ble of hashish fumes,“⁶ he is “some­thing less than conscious.“⁷ Really, though, his men­tal state may be more accu­rately described as hyper-con­scious, as he tells the reader, “I sensed every­thing before it hap­pened. I knew a cer­tain Oldsmo­bile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the fam­ily inside it I knew we’d have an acci­dent in the storm.“⁸ Notice that, even though the narrator’s state of mind may be altered, these state­ments of knowl­edge are unam­bigu­ous. As a result, the reader is meant to accept these visions at face value, although later on the nar­ra­tor will attempt to deny them. For writ­ers inter­ested in cre­at­ing sub­text, it’s crit­i­cal that your main character’s inner self be clearly estab­lished for the reader. When we learn about the narrator’s fore­sight in “Car Crash,” his true moti­va­tion hasn’t yet been estab­lished, but if the reader ques­tioned whether this fore­sight was real, there would be noth­ing for the nar­ra­tor to deny later on, and sub­text would be lost.

It’s not until the acci­dent actu­ally occurs and the nar­ra­tor con­verses with the other vic­tims of the crash that his goal is estab­lished and sub­text begins to emerge. Imme­di­ately after the crash, the fol­low­ing exchange occurs between the nar­ra­tor and the hus­band who was dri­ving the Oldsmo­bile:
          “What hap­pened?”
          “We had a wreck,” he said.⁹
Notice how Denis John­son doesn’t attrib­ute the ques­tion because the reader is meant to assume that the hus­band is the one ask­ing the ques­tions. The nar­ra­tor, after all, is the one with the answers. How­ever, it’s the hus­band who answers that they had a wreck, some­thing the nar­ra­tor already knew. (To be clear, the story is writ­ten in first per­son, from the narrator’s point of view.) Later, it hap­pens again:
          “Is [the man’s wife] okay?”
          “She’s dead!” he said, shak­ing her angrily.&³1;⁰
This denial becomes the narrator’s main goal — to deny the knowl­edge he pos­sesses. The way he elects to do that, inter­est­ingly enough, is to ask ques­tions in an attempt to deny him­self a posi­tion of author­ity. By ask­ing ques­tions of those around him, he is demon­strat­ing that he doesn’t pos­sess the answers. Of course, by ask­ing these ques­tions, he’s receiv­ing the answers he had hoped to avoid. What John­son does so well here, and other writ­ers can emu­late, is allow his char­ac­ter to devise a way out of the predica­ment, only to have the sup­posed escape pull him deeper into the con­flict. Start with what your char­ac­ter wants, then con­sider ways to achieve that goal. What’s tricky is con­sid­er­ing all the pos­si­ble actions avail­able to the char­ac­ter. The nar­ra­tor in “Car Crash” could have done any num­ber of things to deny him­self knowl­edge — huff paint thin­ner to lower his IQ (he clearly has a drug habit), sim­ply avoid all books and intel­li­gent peo­ple for the rest of his life, kill him­self — but only by ask­ing ques­tions is he again con­fronted with this unwanted knowl­edge.

When the nar­ra­tor isn’t ask­ing ques­tions, he’s pre­sented with mul­ti­ple oppor­tu­ni­ties to demon­strate his knowl­edge, and he repeat­edly eschews them. A semi-truck comes upon the scene of the wreck and the dri­ver asks the nar­ra­tor, who is hold­ing the baby that was beside him in the back­seat of the Oldsmo­bile, “Is every­body dead?” The nar­ra­tor responds, “I can’t tell who is and who isn’t,”&³1;&³1; despite the fact that he’s hold­ing a live baby and he’s been told that the man’s wife is dead.&³1;&³2; When the nar­ra­tor is taken to the hos­pi­tal, the doc­tor tells him he should have an X-ray, and the nar­ra­tor says, “No.” The doc­tor per­sists and the nar­ra­tor says to him, “There’s noth­ing wrong with me.”&³1;&³3; These state­ments are unam­bigu­ous and force­ful, in con­trast to the narrator’s ear­lier dia­logue, and are sim­i­lar to the state­ments of knowl­edge at the begin­ning of the story. How­ever, the dif­fer­ence is that those ini­tial state­ments of knowl­edge were in prose, whereas these state­ments by the nar­ra­tor deny­ing the knowl­edge that comes from an X-ray is deliv­ered in dia­logue. The nar­ra­tor may not be able to rid him­self of the knowl­edge he already pos­sesses, but he can avoid learn­ing any­thing more.

The key to sub­text is estab­lish­ing a clear inten­tion or goal for your char­ac­ter. Return­ing to John Yorke, sub­text “emerges from the inter­ac­tion between a character’s façade and their actual inten­tion or goal.”&³1;⁴ With­out a clearly defined inner yearn­ing, there’s noth­ing for the character’s façade to inter­act with. In the case of “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing,” the narrator’s main goal is to deny him­self both the knowl­edge he already pos­sesses and any addi­tional knowl­edge. The rea­son sub­text and dia­logue are so intri­cately linked is that dia­logue func­tions as the character’s façade ─ it’s how they present them­selves to the other char­ac­ters.

When writ­ing dia­logue, writ­ers would do well to read Dou­glas Glover’s “Short Story Struc­ture: Notes and an Exer­cise.” His first sug­ges­tion for bet­ter dia­logue is to under­stand “that dia­logue in a story is not like dia­logue in real life.” Specif­i­cally, “dia­logue in a story is highly orga­nized, it’s a form of action, and, as such, it must con­tain drama and con­flict and motivation.”&³1;⁵ Remem­ber that this moti­va­tion is com­ing from within the char­ac­ter. The goal is not to mimic real life dia­logue, but rather to think of the dia­logue as the façade behind which the character’s true moti­va­tion is hid­ing.

In “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing,” the reader is really only attuned to the narrator’s moti­va­tion, so that we’re learn­ing more about him through dia­logue, but not so much the other char­ac­ters. How­ever, when you have mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters in a scene, each with their own well-defined moti­va­tions, that’s where things can get really inter­est­ing. In these sit­u­a­tions, Glover advo­cates a tech­nique he calls “not-answer­ing.” As he explains, this means that “the speeches from one char­ac­ter to the next are in con­flict and do not sim­ply go pit-a-pat like a friendly ping-pong rally.”&³1;⁶ Some of the tech­niques he rec­om­mends include “Lying” and “Answer­ing With A Ques­tion.” Again, all of these tech­niques are most suc­cess­ful when the char­ac­ters are work­ing towards clear goals. 

Glover’s exam­ple for “lying” is the fol­low­ing:
          “Do you love me, Jack?”
          “No,” he said, lying to her, lying to himself.&³1;⁷

In this case, the reader sees the jux­ta­po­si­tion at the same time. How­ever, the con­trast may not always be in such close prox­im­ity. When the nar­ra­tor in “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing” asks the other vic­tims of the crash about what hap­pened, the reader knows it’s a lie not because we’re told right after he asks the ques­tion, as in Glover’s exam­ple, but because of the expo­si­tion at the begin­ning of the story, where his fore­sight was estab­lished. This exchange cre­ates more space between the jux­ta­po­si­tion, and per­haps becomes clearer to the reader on a sec­ond read-through, but either way, what’s impor­tant is that the writer has estab­lished the con­trast for the reader. And not only can dia­logue be con­trasted with expo­si­tion, but dia­logue can also be con­trasted with other dia­logue to estab­lish a character’s deceit. For exam­ple, when the nar­ra­tor in “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing” tells the semi-truck dri­ver that he can’t tell who is and who isn’t dead, the reader under­stands that he’s lying, even though there isn’t any expo­si­tion explic­itly stat­ing this, because we saw an ear­lier con­ver­sa­tion where the nar­ra­tor was told that the man’s wife is dead.

Another tech­nique sug­gested by Glover is “answer­ing with a ques­tion.”
          “I love you, Jack.”
          “Do you?”&³1;⁸
Here, the onus is placed back on the ini­tial speaker, and, as seen in this exam­ple, the ques­tions aren’t always used to show con­fu­sion in a char­ac­ter. This sec­ond speaker, Jack, seems to know exactly what he’s doing, forc­ing the ini­tial speaker to con­firm her love for him. This idea ─ that ques­tions don’t nec­es­sar­ily need to indi­cate con­fu­sion ─ is used to great effect in “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing.” How­ever, instead of hav­ing the nar­ra­tor answer with a ques­tion, he’s the one ask­ing the ini­tial ques­tions. “What happened?”&³1;⁹ he asks just after the wreck, even though he knew it was going to hap­pen. Here, the ques­tions are being used to indi­cate the narrator’s focus has shifted to deny­ing this knowl­edge he pos­sesses.

The rela­tion­ship between sub­text and dia­logue is a sym­bi­otic one. Sub­text emerges as a result of con­flict between the inner self (desire) and the outer self (dia­logue). With­out one, there can­not be the other. In terms of a story, this con­flict is usu­ally seen as ten­sion between the dia­logue and the prose, where the reader is privy to both but the other char­ac­ters in the story are only aware of the dia­logue. This dis­par­ity needs to be exploited for sub­text to emerge. Con­sider the word “sub­text” — under the text. What’s so daunt­ing about sub­text is that you can’t spell it out in the story, but if you provide the right tools, the reader will be well-equipped to dig a lit­tle deeper.


&³1;John Yorke, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Jour­ney into Story, (New York: The Over­look Press, 2014), 151 

&³2;Yorke, 164 

&³3;Denis John­son, “Car Crash While Hitch­hik­ing,” The Scrib­ner Anthol­ogy of Con­tem­po­rary Short Fic­tion (New York: Touch­stone, 2007), 288 

⁴John­son, 289 

⁵John­son, 290 

⁶John­son, 288 

⁷John­son, 288 

⁸John­son, 288 

⁹John­son, 290 

&³1;⁰Johnson, 290 

&³1;&³1;Johnson 291 

&³1;&³2;Techniques for improv­ing dia­logue will be dis­cussed later, but it’s worth not­ing here why this inter­ac­tion is espe­cially unique. Often­times, a new char­ac­ter will be intro­duced who doesn’t know what’s going on, and things will be explained to this new char­ac­ter (and, by exten­sion, the reader). It’s a way to use dia­logue for expos­i­tory pur­poses. How­ever, despite the intro­duc­tion of a new char­ac­ter (the semi-truck dri­ver), the nar­ra­tor refuses to explain any­thing to him, and rather than just sub­vert­ing the trope for the sake of sub­vert­ing it, Denis John­son does so with a pur­pose. Because the narrator’s main desire is to avoid knowl­edge, it fol­lows log­i­cally that he would refuse to explain what’s going on. 

&³1;&³3;Johnson, 291–292

&³1;⁴Yorke, 164 

&³1;⁵Douglas Glover, “Short Story Struc­ture: Notes and an Exer­cise,” Attack of the Cop­ula Spi­ders: Essays on Writ­ing, (Wind­sor, Canada, Bib­lioa­sis, 2012), 39 

&³1;⁶Glover, 39 

&³1;⁷Glover, 39 

&³1;⁸Glover, 40 

&³1;⁹Johnson, 290 


Owen is a writer and poet liv­ing in Philadel­phia. His work has appeared in Philadel­phia Sto­ries and The Birds We Piled Loosely, and his the­ater and book reviews can be read at phindie.com. He is cur­rently pur­su­ing an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Rose­mont Col­lege.

One comment

Nice analy­sis. One of my favorite Denis John­son sto­ries. “Emer­gency” is prob­a­bly my favorite. 🙂


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