The "Show, Don't Tell" of Subtext
I love novels that put me right inside the story instead of holding me at a distance, forced to view the action through binoculars. The experience becomes visceral. Immediate. Real.
There are many ways to achieve this: a close POV, a relatable character, or descriptive detail, but an often overlooked technique is the opportunity to decipher what characters are holding back, what they’re NOT telling us, through subtext.
Which is why storytelling void of layers of meaning tends to feel flat.
In real life, for many reasons, people rarely say what they’re actually thinking. They may hold back because they’re a guest in someone else’s house out of good manners (“What a lovely bright colour!” (whilst remaining at the threshold) = “OMG. Pass the sunglasses. And a bucket—I think I’m going to be sick.”), or because they don’t want to let on that they fancy the other person and are jealous of their current girlfriend (“She’s so… extraordinary!” = “I can’t stand how perfect she is!”), or because they’re hiding a shameful secret.
I certainly don’t want to be told that someone is tactful, or jealous, or riddled with shame. I want to be given an opportunity to deduce that from the subtext, from what they’re not saying, and from the decisions and physical ‘tells’ which show the truth.
Because that’s how it is in real life. We listen to each other, yes, but we never take what others say at face value, we read physical cues to form a more honest version of reality.
The most famous quote on the subject of “show, don’t tell” is by Anton Chekhov, who said:
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
I'm pretty sure he wasn't just referring to specific description, however, but sharing a way to make readers ask themselves, “Why is that detail significant?”
For more about subtext dip into The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter. If you have a favourite how-to book on the subject of subtext, post it in the comments below.