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What the F is ‘show not tell’?

What the F is ‘show not tell’?

prose writing skills Dec 07, 2023

I’m feeling controversial today, so let’s break some common writing misconceptions.

‘Show don’t tell’ is very popular writing advice… Everyone thinks they know what they’re doing with it. But what does it actually mean?

Ah yes, most writing tips will simply tell you that you shouldn’t just tell your readers that your character is sad, but show them crying. Groundbreaking. Earth-shattering advice.

Oh and then, on the very other side of the spectrum, are the folks who are going to try to tell you that “show don’t tell” is the worst advice in the world. Stories are all about telling, aren’t they? We tell stories. We tell them. We don’t show them. Duh.

Now, that one, I fully disagree with.


I am of the opinion that absolutely every single part of your story should in some way be working with the famous writerly rule. And I will spend the rest of this blog post trying to convince you why that is, and why most of that advice you usually get doesn’t even scratch the surface.


What is ‘show don’t tell?’

The amount of tips about showing instead of telling that you’ll find out there can be extremely conflicting, and most of them focus on the wrong things. But listen to me—I know what I’m talking about. Mostly. Some of the time. 

No, but—in all seriousness—I have been studying subtext for years, and that’s really what I want to get you to understand. ‘Show don’t tell’ is really just ‘how to use subtext throughout your fiction’ with a catchy title to make that advice sound wiser or more hip.

Let us first look at all the stuff you’re usually told to do more showing in:

The wind was blowing. (Tell) → The branches knocked stubbornly against the window. (Show) 

She was bold for as long as I knew her. (Tell) → Even when we were children, she’d stand up to the teachers who raised their voices at her. (Show) 

This caused him to feel sad and he didn’t know what to say. (Tell) → This caused his shoulders to sag, and his mouth emptied of any viable words that could fill the silence. (Show)

These are all really good examples of strengthening your prose, and you should totally apply these as you write. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the advice on this level. But it is line-level (surface) stuff.

ALSO: How to Immerse Readers in Your Story


Now, let’s dig deeper. You can (and should!) think about applying the advice on a larger scale.

Your scenes, for example.

What is the point of that scene that you’re writing about? Do you know? Can you actually say in one sentence the message you’re trying to convey with what happens?

Your chapters too. 

Do they each have a certain point behind them? Do they each bring forward a piece of the story that your novel simply wouldn’t work without? Do they each build into the purpose of your book, or your character arcs, or your plot beats?

And your book? Do you understand what you’re trying to say with your book and what that core message of your project is?

Once you know what you want to say is when you can start to figure out how you’re going to show it.

This is subtext.


What is subtext in fiction? How do you use it?

Subtext is just about the strangest invention in human history. It’s everything that’s being said without actually being said. It’s reading between the lines, if you will. It’s present in fiction but it’s with us in day-to-day life, too.

It’s that moment when two characters need only silence to communicate the devastating discovery that’s really being said. It’s that moment when the protagonist finally learns their lesson, behaves differently, defies all odds, and every reader feels the satisfaction in their change. The author didn’t need to tell you that happened, because their entire book just showed you that journey.

Subtext is present in every single conversation. When a character gently enquires about a subject in a casual way too many times, it’s probably something that means a lot to them. When a character switches topics, it’s a sign they’re not comfortable with the previous one. When they interrupt, they’re probably nervous or upset or anxious.

But none of those conclusions need to be told. You leave them in the subtext where they belong.

And you use that subtext for every single part of your book.

No chapter, no scene, and no conversation should be there unless it carries a part of your subtext in it. They all have a purpose, and usually that purpose is to illustrate your core story message, or show a change in your character’s arc or their relationship, or highlight an important theme.

It’s often something authors do subconsciously anyway, and you’re sure to be doing some of these things already. But subtext comes a lot easier to some people than it does to others.

ALSO: Why Do We Write What We Write?


What are the examples of ‘show don’t tell?’

I’ve already given you some examples throughout this blog, but let’s break down some of the biggest elements you can try to consciously apply this advice to from here on-out.


The core story question

Your story will probably not explicitly tell the readers that the message is: Accept yourself just as you are and you will find your confidence.

Rather, the entire book will show a story of your protagonist maturing from someone who kept changing things about themselves based on trends or outside influence while still feeling inadequate to someone who has learned to love themselves.


The themes

Your story will not always explicitly say things like ‘capitalism is a bad concept and it doesn’t work,’ but you will rather construct scenes that show the downsides or consequences of capitalism, like making your protagonist a regular worker-bee who’s faced with financial challenges that are impossible to resolve. Maybe you will give them a mouthy best friend who has no shortage of relatable complaints about the system.


The character arcs

You’re not going to ping every moment where your character goes through a change and tell your reader: “From that moment on, she was confident.”

Instead, you show that transition through action, and through your character’s choices.

ALSO: Crafting Complex Characters


The relationships

You can treat this exactly the same as the character arc. Will you pause to tell us the status of every relationship, and each person’s feelings about that?

Or can you make it more interesting and show the consequences of the change in the relationship? If you had two people accidentally make out, maybe they’ll be awkward around each other the next day, and completely avoid all topics related.



The king of subtext! You should always have two layers in every single conversation—the stuff that’s actually being said or the external conversation, and all of the subtext that each person actually wants to say.

The trick to really striking good subtext in dialogue is to give each character a very clear underlying motivation for the conversation.

ALSO: The 3-step System to Create Well-Written Dialogue


Narrative POV

Even your narrators could be leaving breadcrumbs of subtext in what they say to your reader. Especially important for unreliable narrators. Think of it as a one-way conversation, and use the same method you would use in dialogue.


The prose

As with the examples I mentioned first in this blog, this is your line-level advice. This is where you get to work on making your prose sound more sophisticated and way more interesting. 

Show don’t tell is that kind of advice that you can keep applying to everything in your novel. And it’s a good exercise to improve the quality of your writing. From the overarching theme and subtext, to choosing the prosaic details that immerse your readers into the scene, you gotta keep doing it over and over again.


Start with the simple question:

How can I say this to my readers without spelling it out?

And the skills will follow.


Char Anna

Char is the author of the writing guide ‘Finish Your First Novel’ and the founder of The Plottery. She’s been in the biz since 2021, and holds a BA in Film & Screenwriting as well as an MA in Creative Writing from Edinburgh Napier University.

Char resides in rainy Scotland with her pup Lavender (who is anything but calm, contrary to what her name suggests), and she writes darker fiction that focuses on unusual family dynamics and lots of queerness.



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