Writing requires subtly. Your job is not to hit readers over the head with your point (theme, moral, etc) but to slyly nudge readers into making them agree with your view of the story or character. It's related to the old saw "Show don't tell."

Let your Reader Figure Things Out

Now, what the heck does that mean?

Thank you for asking. I don't mean confuse your reader or refuse to reveal important details. That would be bad. What I'm talking about is related to the writer's mantra Show Don't Tell.

Complexity is what happens when you let readers figure it out themselves. They can do that because they're not stupid.

Let's start with some examples.

Geneva didn't want to answer.

We've been told. Ho hum. That's kind of boring. I'll move on, but I'm getting a bit restless. As a reader, I have no chance to participate in this sentence. Here's how you show Geneva doesn't want to answer and let the reader participate:

Geneva squirmed and bit her lower lip.

Now I have a picture of Geneva sitting down. My subconscious is saying, Ah, she's squirming. She's uncomfortable. Biting her lip, eh? Geneva doesn't want to answer. As a reader, I'm now engaged in the story. This is much more fun!

Note: Resist the temptation to write:

Geneva didn't want to answer. She squirmed and bit her lower lip.

Now a more complicated example:

Andrew's eyes narrowed as Geneva, seated at the table, pushed her cup from hand to hand. Her raven head bent as she spoke, unaware of the telling accusation of her moving hands.

Here we have a mix of showing and telling. The first sentence shows. The second tells. Here's how to fix it:

Andrew's eyes narrowed as Geneva, her gaze fixed on the table, pushed her cup from hand to hand.

The image evoked by the first sentence contains everything that was told in the second sentence. Andrew's narrowed eyes suggest disbelief. Geneva pushing the cup suggests she's nervous and unaware of what she's doing with the cup. Your reader will process this image and in so doing become much more involved in the story. Her mind is engaged with the clues given and she's anticipating what might come next. Your job now is to reinforce this image. Perhaps like this:

    Andrew's eyes narrowed as Geneva, her gaze fixed on the table, pushed her cup from hand to hand. "I beg your pardon?"
    Geneva raised her eyes. "He reached right though the window, my lord." The sound of the cup sliding over the table filled the room.
    "That," Andrew said, "is quite enough." He snatched the cup, and Geneva started back.
    "But, it's true! Every word."

When Andrew says, "That is quite enough." and takes the cup, is he talking about the noise made by the cup or the fact that Geneva seems to be telling him a whopper? It could be both! Maybe Andrew meant the cup, but interestingly, Geneva appears to have assumed (because of a guilty conscience?) that he's accusing her of lying. The characters are reacting to subtext, just like real people.

This sort of complexity is what happens when you let readers figure it out themselves. They can do that because they're not stupid. Human beings have a lifetime of experience in divining the meaning of gestures and facial expressions. That's why you show don't tell.

One last example.

Geneva stared despondently at the remains of her dinner.

A classic case of telling. All this sentence does is tell us the manner in which Geneva stared. Sorry, the part about what she was staring at isn't showing either. But what about this?

Geneva slumped on her chair, one leg sticking into the aisle, a trap for the inattentive. She used the tines of her fork to crosshatch her mashed potatoes. Every so often she heaved a great sigh and flipped over a half-gnawed drumstick.

Perhaps you have noticed that the second way uses a lot more words. No. This is not bad. This is how your MS can quickly reach 100,000 words without needing to add a Revolution or two just to stretch things out.

Your assignment

Find a passage in your WIP where you've written about someone's physical expression (He looked happy or sad or whatever.) Re-write it to imply the same thing though a gesture.

Extra Credit

Find all the places where you're telling and rewrite most, if not all of them.

»» Why you have to prove yourself.

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