This is the second part of the chapters about subtext. If you haven’t read the previous one, please do so first, as this one directly continues on the same ideas.

Unreliable Narrators

A third method that allows you to add subtext all over the place, is the unreliable narrator. Stories are always told from a certain perspective. Unless your narrator is some objective, omniscient bystander … this perspective will color how and what is being told.

By making the audience question what is true and what is not, they turn into an active audience for basically the whole story.

Additionally, you can use this to make dialogue more “interesting” by, well, lying about what happened. For example, if our narrator really hates another character, they might write their dialogue like: “I will DESTROY you and your family!” While, in reality, they just said: “I will not accept this.”

The requirement, of course, is that you strongly hint towards the audience that the narrator might not be reliable. Otherwise you’ve just been lying to and confusing your audience for the whole time.


A common trick is to show some event at the start of the story (through the eyes of our narrator), then have another character clearly state that something else happened. As a reader, you might think that the other person is just lying to achieve something. But this already plants the seed of doubt, which can be strengthened over time as more elements of the story “don’t quite line up”

In this space, we have three possibilities.

  • Honest Mistake: the narrator just forgot, or they don’t really care, and they simply made a mistake
  • Lying to yourself: the narrator tells themselves a certain lie (to not have to change)
  • Lying to others: the narrator purposely deceives others (to achieve a certain goal)

In my view, lying to yourself is the most powerful. An active audience will soon figure out “yeah, you’re telling yourself this, but you don’t really mean it”. They’ll look for any clue that the character realizes the same thing. At the same time, this can “excuse” a lot of interesting behavior, because the character lies to themselves about their actions.

As stated before, if you lie to others, you need a good reason for it. Don’t have a character lie just because it sounds intriguing or helps the plot.

Lastly, you can use this unreliable narrator to show more about the character.

When a character doesn’t really care about something, they are fuzzy or uncertain about it, barely spending time on it. When they do care deeply, they’ll be certain, complete, and try to get the details right.

Earlier, I explained my principle to “never lie”. Still, I accidentally lie from time to time. There are things I do not care about enough to really make sure what I think is true, so I say what I presume to be true. Sometimes, it turns out to be false later!

At the same time, if I do care, I have the urge to make sure I get across all the details.

How to use this in a story? Have a character omit information, lie, handwave something, or be cryptic to show a topic just isn’t important to them. At the same time, have them talk at length, make sure details are correct, and become really annoyed if others don’t believe them if the thing matters to them personally.


“So you went to the bakery to meet this woman called Lisa—”


“And then Lisa asked you on a date to—”

“Eliza, dammit! What’s wrong with you?”

It might seem like they’re just correcting them at first. Maybe it can be played as a joke. They’re just saying the correct name a few times. But the subtext here is that they really care about this story, this meeting, this woman, and want to get it right.

The Tiny Topic Trick

This is a very simple trick that works time and time again. That’s because it also happens in the real world, time and time again.

  • Have the characters talk about something that is only superficially important. (Household chores, a specific detail for the next mission, an ugly color in their clothes, whatever.)
  • But they actually use it as a vessel to talk about something they care about deep down.

Think of a couple. They might have a disagreement about the tiniest thing (“why do you put the fork on the left side of your plate, not the right side?!”) which blows up into this huge fight.

Why? Do they really care that much about cutlery etiquette? No, of course not. They use that specific, current issue as a way to disagree about something much more important.

Again, this happens because the really important thing is “UNSAYABLE”. A deepest fear, regret, anger, whatever cannot be expressed in words and is too harsh to face dead-on. So, instead, people latch onto a specific issue of the current day, and use it as a vessel to express the unsayable.


Recently, I watched House of the Dragon. In it, there’s a scene where this is used to an extreme.

A girl and boy are forced to be wed for political gain. But the boy is actually gay and the girl wants to keep her sexual adventures with anyone she wants. What do they do?

They start talking about which foods they enjoy and do not enjoy. They use this metaphor, this simpler topic related to the dinner they just had, to discuss sexual preferences (and come to an agreement about them).

When done poorly, this seems silly. Why not just talk about the thing you wanted to talk about? But when done well, it is both realistic and adds subtext that turns the audience into an active listener. They’ll slowly figure out what they’re actually talking about. They’ll probably feel smart and satisfied for doing so.


At the start, I gave you a simple formula.


Hopefully this makes sense to you now. A dialogue scene should not just be the literal text that’s being said. That part should combine with the context: the location, the characters and their relationships, their body language and tone of voice.

Moreover, subtext mostly comes from the combination of text and context. To create interest and turn the audience into active listeners, have the text and context contradict or contrast each other. Have characters omit words from their dialogue, so the audience has to search the true meaning in the context.

And lastly, there’s no point doing the same thing multiple times. Subtext is there to fill in the gaps, not repeat what is already being said (literally). The best dialogue is efficient and concise, not wasting time on even a single word that didn’t need to be said.

Continue with this course
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