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Monday, May 9, 2022

Theme: Showing > Telling

Many of us are familiar with the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule, but few of us realize how vital it is to writing our stories' themes. In fact, one of the most common problems that come up with theme, happens because the writer tells the theme more than shows it. So, when you learn how to show your theme, you are well on your way to writing a stronger one--which means writing a stronger story. Let's briefly review the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule and go over why telling theme alone is rarely effective. Then we'll follow up with why and how to show your theme.

The Meaning of "Show, don't Tell"

The "Show, don't Tell" rule usually relates to the actual prose of a story. In short, it means to dramatize what is happening in a scene, in a way that allows the reader to experience the story, instead of just reading as a spectator. This is often done by imagery (aka, appealing to the senses). When a writer simply labels and explains what happens (tells the story), it's almost always less effective.

For example, read this telling sentence:

Emily was tired.

It simply labels Emily's state. And we don't really understand what kind of tired she is. Is she physically tired from running a marathon? Is she tired in the sense she needs sleep? Or is she tired because she's bored? We don't know. It's vague and general.

But when we show that Emily is tired, it becomes more concrete and specific.

For example, read this showing passage:

Yawning, Emily dragged her backpack on the way to her bedroom. Her eyes drooped shut with each step. She fell into her bed, and her shoes blackened the covers. She rubbed her eyes--mascara gritted against her skin--then flung her arm over her face to block out the light.

Now the audience has a specific image and experience of Emily being tired. Now they feel more tired, like Emily.

And that's more impactful.

Of course, telling isn't always bad, and there is a time and place for it. 

To learn more about the "Show, don't Tell" rule, including when to break it, check out "Breaking Writing Rules Write: 'Show, don't Tell.'"

But showing extends beyond the prose itself, and sometimes when we extend it beyond that, it can make the definitions a little more blurry

Luckily, when we apply it to theme, it need not get too blurry.

Telling Your Story's Theme

The theme is an argument about how we should be living our lives, and just like with prose, the theme is most effective when you show it more than tell it. Yet, perhaps the most common problem with theme happens when the writer tries to consciously superimpose one by putting in monologues, sermons, or long passages that teach preach how we should be living our lives and what the meaning of the story is.

When a writer tells their theme more than shows it, it's exactly the sort of behavior that leads professionals to share the erroneous idea that you can't write with a theme in mind. You can. But just like with any writing element, if you don't know what you are doing, you're more likely to handle it poorly. In this case, it shows up as what people call "preachiness."

Preachiness happens because the writer is telling the theme way more than showing it.

Or worse, they are only telling it and never showing it.

Or worse, they are telling a theme that actually doesn't coincide with what the story showed.

Almost always, a story's theme is determined by these elements . . . 

The Critical Pieces:

1. Your protagonist's dominating qualities, worldview, and/or lifestyle

2. Your protagonist's arc

3. The antagonistic force

4. How the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist is resolved.

The Supporting Pieces:

1. The Influence Character

2. The supporting cast

3. Secondary plotlines (conflicts)

(For more of an explanation on these and how they work, check out "How Theme is Your Story's Shadow.")

This means that if you try to pick a theme and overlay it on a story, it will ring false. It will sound fake. And it will sound like a lecture. Because the critical and supporting pieces don't prove that theme true, you'll likely succumb to simply putting in sermons and preachy passages. 

On some level, it feels like a lie. 

Because it's not what the story shows.

The theme comes out of the story, you don't slap it on top at the end. You can't put makeup on a pig and tell the audience it's a human. They can see through the makeup. And it's annoying if you go on long trying to convince them it's something it's not.

(As a side note, another way preachiness can slip in is if the author doesn't fairly consider or represent the opposing argument (the anti-theme). If a theme is an argument about life, then it needs to have someone or something arguing against it, and if you want a strong theme, that argument needs to appear fair and convincing.)

In truth, we've probably all encountered stories where the theme was told more than shown. I've seen it show up in stories where the writer tried to shoehorn a theme about "strong women" with dialogue or a monologue, when the character arc, plot, and antagonist actually had little to do with gender roles. I've seen it show up in passages about how humankind is bad because we are destroying the planet, in an arc, plot, and antagonist that had little to nothing to do with the environment. It usually comes off as very on-the-nose.


Because it doesn't come naturally out of the story itself, the author can only shoehorn it with a lecture or the like.

If you want to write about how women can be strong, you need to write a story that demonstrates that. You need to pick a character, arc, opposing forces, and secondary plots that explore gender roles and prove it to be true at the end. And to do it effectively, you need to show a convincing counterargument, (even if you don't personally agree with the counterargument).

If you don't start there, it will always feel to the audience like makeup on a pig (even if they can't pinpoint exactly what's wrong), no matter how beautiful the makeup is. If you can change the "theme" by deleting a few passages or monologues from your story, it probably isn't the true theme.

In order to change and manipulate theme, you need to do it by changing and manipulating the critical and supporting pieces.

Showing Your Story's Theme

Instead of listening to someone tell us what we should or should not be doing (which often naturally leads the human mind to search for exceptions or even inspires rebellious spirits), it's more resonating and effective to facilitate an experience that helps the audience draw their own conclusions of the truth(theme) you are arguing.

We do this by making sure the critical pieces and supporting pieces of the theme explore the theme's topic and then prove the argument true. We show the theme through the story.

We don't want to start the story sounding like a stuffy know-it-all, i.e. "Well of course women can be strong! Duh! What kind of terrible person would think otherwise?!"

In order to prove an argument true, it needs to be tested. We can't just say it's true. Again, we need to show it.

How might we do this?

For the topic of strong women or gender roles (which I feel like I see get shoehorned more than others in modern films), Mulan is a great example. (The animated version. I haven't seen the live-action one.)

There is no long sermon or lecture about how women can be just as significant in society as men. Or about how both masculine and feminine roles are important in a culture. There is no lecture, because we need no lecture.

We start out with a girl who struggles to live up to her gender role, and then runs away to pretend to be a man in an army. This is already, naturally, a story about gender. But as she faces opposition, the idea of a strong woman comes into question. Can a woman actually make it as a male soldier? It looks like the men are doing better than her (counterargument). Through the middle, the story fairly explores each side of the argument (and some arguments in between). The relationships she has with the men around her (Influence Character(s)) explore the theme topic of gender roles as well.

In the end, the film proves the argument true by showing how a woman saves all of China by defeating the antagonist. It also simultaneously proves true that both masculine and feminine gender roles are important, by having the male soldiers dress up as women (after Mulan has spent most of the film doing the reverse) to get into the palace.

Neither the Emperor, Shang, Mulan, nor Mushu needed to give a big monologue about how these things are true and correct--they didn't need to because the story "proved" (i.e. "showed") it was true, and because the audience experienced it vicariously, they feel that it is true.

Any powerful theme is shown more than told.

In Les Miserables? We are ultimately shown that mercy can do more to change hearts than justice. It's shown through Jean Valjean's qualities and worldview and his character arc. It's shown through Javert's loyalty to justice. It's shown in the relationships and secondary plotlines and supporting cast. It's shown when Javert takes his own life because--due to his loyalty to justice--he cannot live with having been shown mercy by his adversary. The story doesn't just tell us mercy is more powerful than justice. It shows us.

One more example (because they say three proves the point). The Hunger Games argues that sacrificing yourself to benefit others (which is what Katniss--despite temptations--ultimately does on multiple occasions) is better than sacrificing others for personal gain (which is what the Capitol, Games themselves, and President Snow do on multiple occasions). Is this ever said point-blank? Not obviously enough to easily pick out. Instead, it's again shown through the protagonist, antagonist, climax, relationships, supporting characters, and secondary plots.

Showing is stronger than telling. Especially when it concerns theme.

And just like the rule in relation to prose, this doesn't mean it's never okay to tell your theme. There is a time and place for everything. 

Just make sure that if you do, you are showing it much more than telling it.

Otherwise you may inspire eye rolls more than a change of heart.

Related Posts:

How Theme is Your Story's Shadow

Writing Your Anti-theme

How to Add Dimension to Your Story's Theme

How to Write Your Story's Theme

Mastering Motifs for Thematic Power

Read What Others Say About Theme:

Use Theme to Determine Subplots, Supporting Characters, and Tension

5 Ways to Use Theme to Create Character Arc (and Vice Versa)


  1. I agree in principle with what you say about 'showing' the theme of a story, but what I ask myself many times is: Does a story have to have a theme?
    Do we have to have a 'message' to teach people something? Nearly everything I read tells me I need to have a theme. Why can't we have a simple story that doesn't set out to change anyone?

    1. You certainly don't HAVE to write with a theme in mind--many successful writers don't (and some even hate to)! I think the bigger question is, is it even possible to write a story that doesn't have a theme? Every story is saying something about life, whether or not we want it to, I think. Sometimes that changes people, but sometimes it reinforces what they already believe. It doesn't need to always be huge and life-changing. Something as simple as "perseverance helps us through hardships" is something most people would agree with, and something that could be worked into just about any story. You can totally have a simple theme that is only meant to reinforce what most people already believe.

      And I think, even if one writes with no theme in mind, subconsciously, a theme gets through, because the story usually reflects something the author believes, to some extent. So I guess, my response is, you certainly don't HAVE to write with one in mind, and you can certainly share a simple story, but it will still have one, even if it's not obvious.


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