One of the most useful tools in writing short stories, especially those under 2,000 words, is implication. This is a skill that can take a long time to develop because firstly we have to figure out what we can imply and what needs to be stated and secondly because we need to acknowledge that if we imply something it doesn’t mean the reader will see it. This doesn’t mean the reader has missed the point, doesn’t understand, or isn’t intelligent (yes, I’ve heard all of these suggested by writers before). Everyone reads differently and how we interpret things is affected by our background from when we grew up to our culture and everything that influenced us, ever. Everybody has a different background so everybody has a different interpretation, this is one of the great things about fiction.
As we discussed in On Exposition there are things that need to be said because implication would make them unclear. The example used was someone looking for the cup of tea their dead partner would’ve made them. If we don’t know the partner did that then we don’t know what they’re looking at so this needs to be explicitly stated to make it clear what is happening in the story.
However, there are many things that can be implied rather than stated when we’re writing. Emotions and attitudes, in particular, are ones where implication can be used rather than explicitly stating. This doesn’t mean telling what a character feels is invalid or never necessary but there are things that we can imply through the way characters interact with the world. Do we need to say a character is shy or can we show them doing something like struggling to make eye contact? Do we need to say they’re confident or can we show them claiming the space they’re sitting in by spreading out? Do we say they’re scared or show them making themselves smaller?
Sometimes using implication in fiction isn’t only economical it can have more emotional impact than telling. For instance, do we explain unrequited love or do we show one person behaving as someone in love while the other person is oblivious. Whether through experience or observation this is something that people are usually aware of so they don’t need it explaining to them. They can pick up on the cues in people’s behaviour and this applies to characters as well. Alternatively, we can use implication to lead the reader down the wrong path with ambiguous suggestions; is this character being really helpful because they want to help or do they have a nefarious purpose?
Implication can also be used in conjuncture with telling. If we say ‘these two characters are really in love’ but then don’t show an interaction that implies love the statement becomes meaningless. This is often where telling falls down, either we over tell the reader things they don’t need to know or we tell them things but provide no evidence to support it. It’s the literary equivalent of telling someone you’ll do something and then not doing it.
In short while it’s often not as simple as all showing or all telling in short fiction we have to think very hard about what we can imply by what the characters are doing and what we need to tell readers. While in many cases implying is the more economical choice there will still be things we need to tell. This isn’t a balance we find immediately, we have to practice and develop our writing to find what works and what doesn’t in short fiction. In developing these skills in short fiction we can then apply them to our longer fiction making our prose tighter and sharpening our editing skills.