Episode 27: One Great Technique for Writing Subtext – The Third Thing

Subtext can be the difference between polished prose and an amateur-sounding story. Today, we look at one surefire way to add subtext to your dialogue–we’re talking about “the third thing”  

We’re going to be exploring a technique today that we’re calling “The Third Thing.” It’s a way to imbue your writing with that all important, and often mysterious, quality: subtext. Now, rather than give you a textbook definition of what subtext is, I want to share with you how I really learned about what it is how it works. After all, we’re storytellers, so it’s always better to try to teach a concept through story, I think.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t sleep if it’s too quiet. I need some kind of noise in the room. I used to listen to music, but, as a musician, my mind would get all caught up in the lyrics and chord progressions and the arrangement to quiet my mind enough to sleep. So we tried the TV which would alternate between being too loud and having too many flashing lights or differences in scene lighting. We finally stumbled across the perfect solution for my wife and I. When we’re ready to go to sleep, we put on the 90s sitcom Frasier. First of all, we’ve seen all the episodes so many times that we no longer get caught up in the story and it becomes something like gentle background noise. Also, the scenes are always consistently in either Frasier’s radio station or his home–no dramatic flashes of light to be distracting. I’m not sure that’s a great habit to get into–sleeping with the television on–but it works for us.

Okay, so here’s why this is all connected to subtext. We were staying at a hotel a year or so ago which means a TV we’re not familiar with. I hook up my little chromebook to the TV to put on Frasier and we fall asleep. Instead of just turning off in the middle of the night once the little computer goes to sleep, this TV switches over to the Disney Channel and that’s what I wake up to.

I’m exhausted from a late night, can’t find the remote within arm’s reach, so I just lay there and listen to it for awhile. I have no idea what show I’m listening to, but I find myself getting really annoyed by this show. Now, I realize I’m not the target market for a Disney channel show, but this was beyond that. There was something about the way the characters were talking that started driving me absolutely crazy. I realized I was hearing a writing lesson in what not to do. What I realized before long was that the reason it was making me so nuts, and was so absolutely miserable to listen to, was that all the characters were simply saying exactly what was on their minds. If one character was in love with another, they’d say, “I love you.” If that character wasn’t in love back, they’d say, “Well, I don’t love you.” Then one would say something like, “I’m hungry,” and a friend would respond with “Let’s go eat.” Now, those weren’t the words exactly, but that was essentially the level of the dialogue. If a character was thinking it, the character just said it. Plain as day. Word for word. And it was THE WORST piece of crap I’ve ever tried to listen to. Now, I’m sure Disney has some good shows… actually, I’m not so sure, but again, I’m not the target market. But that morning proved to be a huge writing lesson for me. On some level, we hate to hear people say exactly what they are thinking. It goes beyond just that it’s not natural–that that’s not the way people actually talk. What I realized is that it’s incredibly insulting to the audience.

We have grown up to become absolute experts in reading between the lines of what people say. I’m absolutely convinced that we communicate more through what we imply but don’t actually say than what we actually say. This is subtext. It’s beating around the bush. It’s hinting about something. It’s revealing just enough to sneak a message through to someone who is in tune to receive it.

It’s one of the hardest things to do in our writing, whether prose or screenplay, but it’s absolutely vital that we do it. Otherwise our readers are, metaphorically, desperately searching for the remote to change the channel before you drive them crazy with inane dialogue.

Subtext is a huge subject, and one we could devote episode after episode to, so, rather than do that today, we’re going to look at one simple technique–one of many–that can be used to help imbue your writing with subtext. It’s my favorite one, partially because it’s so effective but also because it’s one of the easier ones to teach and immediately be able to use.

A lot of credit for the technique in today’s show goes to Robert McKee, a legend of storytelling and author of the book DIALOGUE that you really should own and devour if you want to be an expert. I’m hoping we can expand on what he talks about in that book and give it a little more real-world application because I’ve found it so helpful in my own writing.

Basically, the idea of “the third thing” is this: have your characters talk about something OTHER than what they are really wanting to talk about, but use it as a METAPHOR for what they wish they could say. In other words, have them talk about a “third thing” that is “safer” to talk about. I want to play for you a couple of clips–one from a TV show and one from a film—that illustrate how the “third thing” works. The first is, oddly enough, from the show we already talked about today: Frasier. It comes in an episode where Daphne, the long-time live-in physical therapist is getting ready to move out of the house, leaving Frasier and his father worrying about how much they will miss her. They are sitting around a bar and, rather than have them all say dumb things like, “Gee, Daphne, I’m really going to miss you,” listen to how the writers use a “third thing” to get the point across. This one is a little heavy-handed–meaning it’s almost too obvious what they are trying to do–but that makes it serve as a particularly good example of the technique. What you are about to hear is Marty, the older man that Daphne has been taking care of, talk about how much he is going to miss his favorite beer that is no longer being made. Listen to how he uses the beer as a stand-in for what he really wishes he could say to Daphne who is sitting right there at the bar with them:


That’s a perfect example of the “third thing.” What Marty really wants to do is tell Daphne how much he’s going to miss her. What he does is use the beer as a stand-in and everybody gets it. That’s subtext and it’s much more powerful than obvious on-the-nose language because it gives your audience the opportunity to figure it out. They are more engaged in the story because they played a part in creating meaning. When you don’t use subtext, they are just passive, taking in your story with no role for them to play. In other words, they are bored and outside of your story world. Subtext invites them in.

Let’s look at the example that Robert McKee points out in his book because it is an absolutely beautiful piece of subtext in dialogue. I’m not sure I’ve seen better. It comes from the film SIDEWAYS and features Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen. In this scene, you’re basically hearing the tail end of a first date. They two are obviously interested in each other but neither is ready to come right out and say that. They are scared because they’ve both been burned by previous relationships. That’s a lot to talk about on a first date, so listen to how they use WINE— a passion they both share— as a stand-in to talk about themselves. First, you’ll hear the Paul Giamatti character talk about his love for Pinot, but listen for what he’s really telling her about himself:   


Did you hear it? He’s using wine to tell her that he’s fragile, that he needs someone who is willing to invest some time into him before he’s able to reveal who he truly can be. That’s not something you could come right out and tell anyone on a first date without sounding insane, but through subtext she hears it loud and clear… and so does the audience.

Now let’s listen to the Virginia Madsen character’s response. Listen for how she feels about the subtext she’s just heard and what she wants him to know about her, again cleverly disguised as a discussion about wine…. One word of warning, she uses the F-word here, which I’m going to repeat a few times as we unpack what we just heard, so be forewarned if that’s going to bother you…


Loud and clear, isn’t it? She’s afraid, but willing to risk falling in love again. She’s been burned by her last marriage, but she’s fascinated by and interested in love. She wants a relationship that’s deep and alive and evolving. She wants a very deep, profound kind of lifelong love. And listen to the power of that last line: “And it tastes so fucking good.” Think about the tension of this situation. Love is in the air, it’s the end of the date, and she can’t just come out and say “I want to have sex with you.” She continues the “third thing” and, placing her hand on his, looks into his eyes and says “And it tastes so fucking good.” She’s saying, in subtext, “we should have sex.”  And it’s clear that the guy gets it—he hears the subtext loud and clear—but he’s scared to death of the kind of love she just described in her subtext. We know he’s scared because immediately after than line, he changes the subject and then asks where the bathroom is. The moment is gone and the entire scene plays out as a discussion about wine.

That is subtext. The audience member feels like a genius because they understood the code that was being used and the scene is compelling and insightful and beautiful.

So here’s the best way to approach using this kind of “third thing” subtext, at least to get started. Look for a moment of conflict in your story, especially when two characters need to work something out that’s hard to talk about. Then, instead of just having them fight about what’s really going on, use a “third thing” for them to argue about. You’ll worry that your audience won’t get it, but you shouldn’t. This is the way we actually talk… in subtext. We are incredibly nuanced about it and are experts at decoding it.

Let me leave you with one last example of how this can work, from one of my high school creative writing students. I had them do some work with this technique and, without reading the exact piece of writing, I want to share what one of my students came up with. She was writing a fantasy story and was struggling with a scene were a king and queen are fighting about their marriage. Essentially, the king thinks the marriage is perfectly fine and is denial that there is anything wrong with it. She, the queen, thinks it’s failing and hates that she can’t get him to see that. So, instead of an on-the-nose fight about their marriage, she had them fight about their castle instead. She started the fight by complaining about how drafty and cold it was because is was in such disrepair. He countered by talking about how majestic and historic it was and how the chinks and blemishes were evidence of its ability to stand the test of time… to survive. And on and on. Now, that’s a beautiful use of the “third thing.” It would be clear to any reader that they are actually arguing about their marriage, even though they are using the “third thing” of their castle.

Another example I loved is that of a wife who thinks her husband is cheating on her. Instead of having the cliche argument in the bedroom full of accusations, this writer put them in a car trying to decide where to have dinner. When he suggests Thai food, she confronts him about why he would want something so exotic and different after all these years of eating at their same old favorite restaurants. What she’s really trying to get at is whether or not he’s bored with HER and has been seeing other women, not whether he’s bored with their restaurant choices and has tried other foods.

Our writing should be riddled with subtext and, like I said at the start of the show, this is just one of the techniques that can be used. It won’t work in every instance, for sure, but watch for places of obvious conflict to use it and I think you’ll love how it brings your scenes, your characters, and your plot lines to life.


Today’s Wise Word comes from the incomparable Toni Morrison, and it’s about subtext. She’s going to complicate things a bit for us, which is good. She says:

“If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic….Authors arrive at text and subtext in thousands of ways, learning each time they begin anew how to recognize a valuable idea and how to reader the texture that accompanies, reveals or displays it to its best advantage.”       – Toni Morrison

I love that she says that authors arrive at text and subtext in a thousands of ways. This is so true. Subtext is one of those mysterious, profound, illusive, magical pieces of writing that can lead you to pull your hair out but also sit in awe of what you’ve created. Today’s show hasn’t been about the one way to imbue your story with subtext. It’s been one of a thousand techniques and, if nothing else, hopefully serves to bring the concept more the front of your minds and looks for those opportunities to give your dialogue, characters, and settings that much-needed subtext to bring it to life in your readers’ minds.


Our weekly challenge this week is–you guessed it–to bring a “third thing” piece of subtext into your current work-in-progress. Find a place in your story where two characters are disagreeing about something. Look it over. Are they arguing on-the-nose, saying exactly what they think and feel? Spend a little time brainstorming a third thing that they could argue about instead. And don’t jump at the first thing that comes to your mind. Dig into you find that thing that resonates with their “real” disagreement and serves as a good stand-in. Then, rewrite your scene with its newfound subtext. Sometimes it’ll be exactly the right move for your scene, and other times you’ll have to rewrite it a number of times with different “third things” until you settle on the right one. This can be a really fun process and will be the thing that brings your scene to life, makes it feel real, and invites your audience in to help create its meaning–one of the most powerful things we can accomplish as writers.

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