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?”

Further reading:

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. 


Thanks for this post. I'm talking about objective correlatives on my blog next week as a way of communicating subtext. I'll link to this blog. Thanks for the information on the book too.

PS. I also find myself noticing how people are talking and what they're not saying that they are saying. Know what I mean? Good writerly instruction right in front of my eyes.

Feel free to post a link to your blog post on subtext in the comments here when it's up, Carol. I'd love to read it!

We read physical signs, and so much is colored by our own experiences. Great post, Lia.

"We read physical cues to form a more honest version of reality" YES! Well said, Lia. And it's funny because when writers are usually first starting out, this is one of the first lessons they learn "show, don't tell". But if a writer isn't careful they can easily lead their characters down a one dimensional path, making them bounce from page to page, doing this thing and that without the visceral experience. Every time I write, I wrestle with this. I'm still trying to grasp this very basic idea that us writers hear so often.

I wouldn't let it hold up your progress in the first draft, though. Just include a "show, don't tell" pass for revisions. And, as Beth pointed out in her post, there are times when it's better to tell, than show:

Cheers, matey! Just trying to keep up with you...

So true! I felt this when reading my first draft - I spilled faaaaar to many beans. More needed to be hidden.

Great post, Lia! I'll be checking out Baxter's book--you've whet my appetite for all things subtext.

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