“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:
“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.”
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
&³3;Denis Johnson, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction (New York: Touchstone, 2007), 288
&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;⁵Douglas Glover, “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise,” Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, (Windsor, Canada, Biblioasis, 2012), 39
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.