more show vs. tell: the subtle art of subtext

Imagine a story in which everyone lies left and right, to each other and themselves.

Sounds good, right? So full of conflict and hidden suggestions, misdirections and bad decisions.

But how exciting is it if you’re told that they are unreliable lying liars?

This is why I’m going through my first draft* with my head in my hands.

Saga’s Lying Cat, courtesy

Saga (a wonderful space opera comic series I highly recommend) has Lying Cat  announce every falsehood. She’s perfect for Saga’s comedy/drama/surrealism but I can’t get away with something so obvious. I’m not that clever and clever isn’t my book’s “tone” anyway.

Hence my need to master subtext.

How can I show Edward con everyone without pointing out every time he invents a story? How do I show Jane play the gracious housewife while struggling not to slap everyone in sight? How do I show Dee’s nervousness even as he follows every insane angelic order?

I’m barely 2 chapters in and I’ve already found multiple spelled-out instances (“My name is Talbot,” Edward lied; Jane hid her anger behind a smile). I don’t want to hit readers over the head like that. At the same time I don’t want to hint so feebly that readers wonder what the hell just happened.

The Emotion Thesaurus has proved invaluable in my efforts to say the unsaid. It’s organized by emotion and includes not only definition and physical, mental, and internal indications but examples of efforts to suppress that emotion. Rage expresses through violent acting out, clouded vision, and a need to take control, but suppressed rage plays out through gritted teeth and tense silence. I don’t read body language well so having it laid out in a tidy list is helpful for me beyond the page.

So I’m going through looking for opportunities for my characters to show their inner conflicts. This will take a lot of work.

*I think I’ve finished my first draft (!) It lacks a few scenes from my outline, but on second look they seem like filler. The first draft may be a major achievement, but it doesn’t feel like one. I now have a ton of sand, but it’s still not a castle.

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Allison Thurman

Allison Thurman has always made stuff: out of fabric, metal, beads, even exaggerated fencing moves. Of late she makes stories out of weird history, with fragments of pop culture, unsolved mysteries, and science fiction mixed in for texture.

She lives in a galaxy far, far away (well, the DC metro area) with too many books and swords.

5 thoughts on “more show vs. tell: the subtle art of subtext”

  1. Very glad you are finding The Emotion Thesaurus helpful! Subtext is such a powerful tool, so learning to master it is well worth the time. Jami Gold has some good articles on subtext (her entire blog should be on every writer’s reading list). Actually, if memory serves, I think I have one specifically on liars too at her blog–an older guest post. *checks* I do!

    Happy writing!


    1. Oh, hi there! Thank you for taking the time to comment!

      I read Jami Gold regularly but hadn’t come across your post there before – a pity because it’s perfect guidance for fleshing out my disreputable characters. I’m finding it tricky to have one character successfully deceive another but still have the reader pick up on the lie.

      Will check out the other subtext posts as well. I have my work cut out for me!

  2. Darn! Here you had me all excited at the prospect of a John Dee/Saga alternate universe crossover tale … 😉

    I mentioned Zelazny’s “Jack of Shadows” as a good everybody-lies-to-everybody fiction example in our email exchange about his successful run-on sentence, but putting it here as well just because this post is where it’s more relevant.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I may have some Zelazny lying around the house; if not, I trust he is still in print? (yes, I am a bad classic sci-fi reader).

      And I totally give you leave to write the John Dee/Saga crossover fanfic of your dreams! 😛

      1. There’s always some Zelazny in print. 🙂 “Jack of Shadow”, unfortunately, isn’t, but appears to be fairly easy to acquire via the secondhand market. Here’s a link to the description of my copy for ISBN, publisher, etc.:

        I’m afraid the great John Dee/Saga fic will have to wait until I get a few billion other interesting things I want to do off my list. But I promise to tell you first if it ever happens. ;p

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