“Show, don’t tell.” Writers hear these three simple words over and over again as they learn to write. But how do you actually show details and when?
One word: subtext.
Subtext is the lifeblood of “show, don’t tell.” It is the art of understating—causing readers to feel or know a fact without mentioning it. Subtext is woven through many aspects of storytelling, but you can capitalize on it in three main areas.
Every story contains descriptions, but portraying a setting is merely one function. They can also set the mood of your character, his voice, and even his personality in general. For instance:
It was gone again, vanishing as they pounded down the last hill. Gnarled shadows pooled around the roots of the forest and dark phantoms shuddered in a cool breeze.
You get the impression of a looming forest, but you also sense the character’s apprehension through how he views it. I haven’t said he’s reluctant to enter the forest, but the metaphor of “shuddering phantoms” reveals his inward emotions.
Using descriptions only to illustrate a setting is a wasted opportunity. Show how a character perceives the setting. This keeps readers attuned to his emotions and the drift of his mind before they even hear his thoughts or observe his body language.
2. Body Language
Body language ties in with subtext and the character’s surroundings. Don’t employ words like happy, sad, confused, or nervous, because you will be telling in almost every case. Instead, insert subtext.
The corridors were empty, but each step wound the sickening ache tighter and tighter in his stomach. He clenched his hands to keep them from trembling. One step after another was all he needed to focus on. One firm, long stride, then the next and the next. The passages were narrower now, some glistening as if they’d been freshly cleaned. Another door. A sharp turn, then a narrow, low passage that curved out of sight like the thick coil of a serpent.
“We’re inside the wall,” Ard said. “You’ll exit above the gate.” The words echoed in meaningless thrums, like a dried bone dragged across the ribs of a monster’s skeleton.
This couples description with body language. The words afraid or nervous never appear, but you know the character is tense. Body language can help depict the people near your viewpoint character as well.
Keros started forward, but Ethaniel caught his arm. The half-Volandum’s shoulders were hard as carved wood, trembling with fury.
“Don’t,” Ethaniel choked. “It’s not worth it.” He swallowed hard and met Bryce’s fevered glare with one of his own. “I’ll run it. Captain. I daresay even a Yathome is better than a man half dead with fever.”
By witnessing each character’s actions, you can detect the anger and disdain from Bryce, the defensiveness from Keros, and the simmering determination in Ethaniel.
You want to convey your character’s mood through description and his emotions through body language, but sometimes you will add internal dialogue too. Though powerful, this ought to meld into the text so seamlessly that readers won’t notice. Instead of writing “he thought/knew,” relay the thought in his own words.
“You do realize how much easier a Yathome is on the ears,” Drexin said. “No one would care if you journeyed into the heart of Erathrane or Solbane and found all kinds of adventures.”
Ethaniel choked back an exclamation. Adventures? Death was more like it.
“I’m just saying you ought to look at the bright side,” Drexin protested. “Like not having to memorize generations of names and deeds.”
That was it. Ethaniel braced his arms against the edge of his bed, his eyes narrowing as he estimated where a solid leap would land him.
Ethaniel’s thoughts blend with his voice and flow well with the context. This technique also gives each character a distinct voice, be it sarcastic, cautious, or pessimistic. A character’s internal thoughts will shape him in readers’ eyes even more than how he interprets the world around him.
Bringing Subtext Together
Subtext extends beyond these three topics to concepts like themes and scenes. But for basic prose, descriptions, body language, and point-of-view thoughts are important to focus on as you practice showing instead of telling. Here is an example of all three at work in one paragraph:
Clouds billowed in the west like great pillars of smoke, splintered with sunlight as though with flames. Ethaniel kept his right hand clenched tight and pressed against his side as Silvara led the way from the Outpost. The rigid weight of a new sword hung across his back. His fingers itched, tightening around a nonexistent strap. Solbane take it all; the shield was the last thing he needed on his mind right now. He glanced over his shoulder as Bryce pulled the door of the Outpost shut with a thud and fell in step, trailing a distance behind the others.
The description sets the mood, even if it is just the subconscious idea of flames and smoke and splintered light. You watch Ethaniel trying to reach for the comfort of the shield strap, only to realize it’s gone. Bryce is following them, even if he is still sullen and reluctant. Ethaniel’s single line of thought lets you glimpse inside his mind without pulling you from the story.
When striving to show instead of tell, remember that readers don’t need to learn everything at the story’s beginning. Indicate the character’s emotions, but not his entire reasoning process the first time he argues for or against something. Let the themes and characters unfold like the petals of a rose. Let readers observe characters through their actions and reactions. Just as subtext shows a scene instead of telling about it, so a novel shows a theme though story instead of telling it like a lecture. The task is challenging, but also worthwhile. Subtext smoothly intertwines your theme, plot, and characters.