by Ryan Lanz
Not long ago, I did a post on showing vs. telling. I’d like to continue along that same vein by talking about ways to allow the reader to think for themselves without being spoon-fed.
We often have characters discovering things. It’s a lot of fun to experience them learning new things on their own and being in new environments.
The habit authors often get wrapped up in is to announce all of the character’s thoughts. Not all of this is bad. I would be a bear with a sore tooth if I suddenly couldn’t share the character’s thoughts (often directly) with the reader.
However, like in many aspects of writing, there are times when the author takes the easy route, often without even realizing it. I will be the first to say that I catch myself being guilty of this, and this post is as much of a reminder to myself as it is to everyone reading.
Using “thought” verbs is certainly an easy route. They include words like suspects, remembers, believes, understands, thinks, imagines, wants, realizes, knows, etc. It’s so easy to say Colton thought that Tiffany liked him. It’s quick and to the point. Which is good, right? Sometimes. But most often, there is a much better way to go.
Instead of spoon feeding your readers that conclusion, instead I encourage you to paint the canvas in a way that shows the reader the situation clearly enough to where the reader discovers that conclusion on their own. In a weird way, using “thought” verbs is kind of like rewriting a classic mystery novel to put the who-did-it person in the first paragraph. That would steal all the joy of discovery for the reader. A good mystery writer doesn’t come right out and say who did it but presents all the clues for that final “aha” moment where the readers discover it for themselves (or at least have the opportunity to).
Let’s continue with the mystery analogy and ask ourselves how instead of spoon feeding the reader, we can present clues to allow the reader to discover things on their own. For that, I have a few examples.
Instead of “Colton thought that Tiffany liked him”:
Colton felt something brush his hand. He looked up and saw Tiffany leaning against his desk. She wore a tiny half-smile, as if she held a secret that nobody knew. She ruined her introduction with a small giggle that she hid behind her hand. Spots of red blossomed on her cheeks. Colton leaned back in his chair and shared her smile.