I’ve mentioned the mistake of making dialogue too “literal” and “complete” several times during this course. This chapter puts that idea on steroids. It may sound counter-intuitive, but good dialogue actually leaves out a lot of information and detail.

This is called “subtext”: the information conveyed without explicitly saying it. The hidden meaning beneath the dialogue. What somebody really means but doesn’t say.

Sometimes this information is shown through the scene around the dialogue (such as the body language of the speakers), sometimes it’s revealed by what people are or are not saying.

This also comes back to the efficiency I mentioned at the start of the course. Subtext allows your dialogue to say multiple things at the same time, with fewer words, making the scene far more efficient.

They say a picture says more than a thousand words. Well …

Good dialogue (with subtext) should say a thousand words with just a few. (Less is more. 90% of what we think and feel is left unsaid.)

For those more scientifically inclined, this is a simple “formula” for subtext.


I decided to split this topic into two chapters, otherwise it became too long.

Why use subtext?

First of all, because it’s a natural component of human conversation. Studies have shown that somebody’s body language and tone of voice are often more important than the actual words they speak.

Two people can say the phrase “I’m fine!”, but through the way they say it convey an entirely different meaning.

This is such an intuitive part of communication that dialogue without subtext immediately takes you out of a story. At least, while writing dialogue, make sure you describe the body language and actions of the speakers. Use them to strengthen what they say or to show they’re hiding something (when actions and words do not match).


Maybe a character says: “Save your breath. Threats are useless against me.” At the same time, however, they’re nervously tapping their foot or looking away all the time.

The subtext, shown through body language, is that they’re actually nervous or scared (at least a tiny bit). Even if their dialogue says the opposite.

Secondly, use subtext because it creates active reading (or active listening). As opposed to spoonfeeding the audience exactly what they need to know, literally and honestly, you turn the dialogue into a puzzle. The audience can only fully understand the whole meaning if they pay a little more attention.

You want the audience to think “yeah, you’re saying X, but why is your body language showing Y?” You want them to be frustrated when somebody talks around a touchy subject, or search for the hidden meaning when somebody gives a cryptic answer.

You want the audience to actively participate with the dialogue.

Subtext accomplishes this. It turns a dump of information into a mystery or puzzle that the audience can solve at the same time. It combines truthful, literal information (which you still need a lot of the time!) with hidden meaning that the audience is eager to uncover.


Consider the previous example. You’ve presented two pieces of information.

  • Somebody says: “Save your breath. Threats are useless against me.” (a confident statement)
  • But their body language displays nervousness

The audience will probably wonder: why? They’ll notice the subtext doesn’t match the text and they’ll become an active listener, trying to figure out the hidden meaning behind all of this.

Subtext is also important for actors, in case you’re writing a screenplay. It gives them a general direction for how to approach a piece of dialogue. At the same time, give actors the freedom to express themselves and introduce their own subtext through their performance. Without subtext … the actor is just a mindless robot repeating the exact words you wrote, which is rarely worthwhile.

The three layers of dialogue

Robert McKee proposes that good dialogue operates on three levels.

  • SAID: ideas and emotions somebody chooses to (consciously) express to others.
  • UNSAID: thoughts and feelings a character only expresses in inner voice to themselves.
  • UNSAYABLE: subconscious urges and desires a character cannot express in words, not even to themselves, because they are mute and beyond awareness.

SAID contains the literal words somebody speaks. If a character says something literally, you can be sure that they choose to express that and are fine with doing so (for whatever reason or purpose).

UNSAID means the things they leave out. A character can literally trail off before completing a sentence. They can refuse to answer a question or give a cryptic answer. They might give a summary of the truth, leaving out details.


In novels, where you’re inside somebody’s head, this incongruity is often directly shown. The character gives a certain answer, but then immediately thinks about the real answer and how it’s different.

UNSAYABLE should be kept simple and related to a character’s core. It should be their biggest desire, the thing they might be working to get for the whole story, but they just cannot express it or figure out how to chase after it.

This one is the hardest to write. Because this desire will seep into every dialogue, causing weird questions or word choices, causing uncertainty and tangents. But it will never be obvious or outright stated.

That’s the ideal dialogue.

  • Interesting things are being said
  • Interesting things are being left out
  • And the whole conversation is tainted by the deepest desires the characters are trying desperately to convey or fight

But that’s a bit vague and generic, so let’s get into some more specific tips.


The simplest trick is just to … omit information!

I recommend writing your dialogue in full the first time. Get the information out, get the dialogue out of your system. At this point, you’re allowed to be very direct and literal.


As mentioned before, I think this is the most helpful and don’t understand why people are so comfortable with lying and miscommunication. But we’re not trying to write a perfect world here—we’re trying to write the most interesting story!

But after doing so, see how much you can remove before it all stops making sense. Just cut out parts of phrases, cut out details, cut out explanations.

If needed, show them instead through description, action or introspection. Replace a line of dialogue that conveys “I am angry at you” with body language that conveys the same thing.

What would people leave out?

  • Things that don’t really matter to them. (Why waste time talking about that?)
  • Things they have a reason to hide. (Such as a secret to keep.)
  • Things that matter so much to them, that they’re afraid to express them or come to terms with them. (Omissions are great for overwhelming emotions.)

The third point is the most powerful and natural, but also the hardest to execute.


Let’s say one character is very ill. A friend of them is a doctor and is checking their health. They realize: their friend is dying.

Now, would they say that? Most people would have a hard time voicing the simple sentence: “You are dying”. They love their friend, they don’t want to see them dead, they don’t want to speak about it and make it a reality.

So they don’t. They might just say “Hang in there, okay?” Or “I … I need to do more tests”. Or they might say nothing at all: they start crying and leave the room.

(Apparent) Non-Sequiturs

In a sense, this is another type of omission. Instead of logically moving from topic A to topic B, a character suddenly jumps to topic B, omitting the transition.

This is called a “non-sequitur”: a character changes topic suddenly, saying something that does not directly flow from the previous conversation.

A very silly example would be something like …

  • “What’s your favorite type of bird?”
  • “I’ve been thinking about moving to America.”

What the second person says does not logically follow from the line of dialogue before it.

If done too often (or poorly executed), this is annoying. People are just talking at each other, not really engaging. It’s frustrating and confusing that the topic shifts all the time.

That’s why you really want an “apparent” non-sequitur. A character changes the topic, but if you think about it for a few seconds, you will understand why. They just omitted the explanation or the lines of dialogue needed to get to that place.


This technique also prevents “overwrought” or “convoluted” links to connect different topics in a conversation. Find a reason for the character to switch instantly, and your scene becomes more snappy and faster paced.

An example

Let’s say James and Sarah are about to do a dangerous mission. James asks: “Do you think we’ll make it out alive?”

Sarah looks away, checks her weapons again, and then responds. “Leave a seat for me at our feast, will you?”

What Sarah said seems like a non-sequitur. Why is she talking about a feast? But if you think a little longer, you’d realize she’s talking about the feast they’ll throw after their victory, and that she assumes both of them will make it (and he must reserve a seat at the table for her).

This creates subtext and active listening!

Just don’t make the leap too large (as the audience won’t be able to follow) or use it too often (as then it becomes exhausting and unrealistic).

The Hidden Think Tank

To write omissions or non-sequiturs well, it helps to think about their cause. Something I call the hidden think tank.

As we formulate our response (in a conversation), a lot of things happen in our brain. Bad dialogue often results in people literally stating their whole chain of thought, beginning to end, leaving nothing out.

Humans don’t do this. We think about our response, then pick an efficient line of dialogue that might fit.

This means that, in a dialogue, all the speakers have this hidden thought process that is more complicated and has more details than the lines they actually speak. Their hidden think tank.

Use this to find interesting spots for subtext.

  • First, write down the full thought process of a character. Anything they might ponder, anything that might be relevant to the current conversation.
  • Then whittle it down to their “conclusion”: the most efficient line of dialogue that is their actual response.

This way, you can leave out a lot of information and only have characters say the interesting lines (with subtext). At the same time, because those lines are the result of a logical chain of thought, the audience can guess and infer the reasoning behind it.

Continue with this course
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