How to Make Your Readers Feel Smart

 

“Show, don’t tell” is one of those pieces of writing advice you hear over and over again without a lot of concrete guidance on what it is and how to implement it. Which is why, for this month’s writing tip, I thought I’d present a fun writing challenge that will not only help you understand what “show, don’t tell” means but help you practice it as well.

The problem with “telling” is that you’re taking all the fun out of reading. Readers like to discover things, piece things together, figure stuff out on their own. In other words, readers like to feel smart. Who doesn’t? But when we tell the reader exactly what we want them to know, we do the opposite. We make them feel…well, not so smart. And a little bored.

“Showing,” on the other hand, is the act of revealing to the reader just enough information for them to fill in the gaps on their own, which gives them something to do, makes them feel like an active part of the story, and makes them feel suuuuuper smart.

Take a look at this example of showing from my young adult novel, The Geography of Lost Things

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I crane my neck, scanning the computer lab for an empty seat and notice a freshman girl signing off and gathering her things. She
stands and I immediately start moving in her direction. But I skid to a halt when I see who’s sitting at the next computer.

My throat goes dry and I consider turning around, waiting for another station to open up, or perhaps even waiting until my first free period to come back. But before I can make any sort of decision, he glances up and our eyes meet.

For a long time, we just stare at each other, a stream of awkwardness passing between us like electricity running down a wire. It feels strangely like a standoff between rival gang members. He looks away first, but only to peer down at the empty seat and then to back up at me, his mind putting the pieces together, his eyes judging the distance between his chair and the one I will soon occupy. I notice his body stiffen.

##

What theories did you start to put together as you read this? What conclusions did you draw? The work you were doing is called reader discovery. It’s what happens when you show the reader strategic pieces of information (through the character’s thoughts, actions, reactions, emotions, etc.), and let them discover the rest of the details on their own, instead of telling them outright everything they need to know.

For example, I could have very well written the above passage like this:

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I walk into the computer lab, hoping to find an empty seat, but instead I find my ex-boyfriend sitting at one of the stations. I really don’t want to see him. I don’t want to talk to him. I’m still so upset about the way things ended between us. Everything has just been so dang awkward since the night we broke up. 

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Not quite as compelling, is it? Because I gave you nothing to do. I told you everything there was to know!

In the first example, I hid things from you. Like buried treasure. I didn’t tell you who was sitting at the computer or what went down between him and the narrator. Instead, I left you clues, like a map to the treasure. I gave you body language, thoughts, emotions, and even the reaction of the other person. I showed you what I wanted you to know, while also leaving you space to come to your own conclusions.

Here’s my challenge to you. In the scene you’re currently working on or revising (or in just a random writing prompt!), choose an important element of your scene and hide it completely from the reader. You’re not allowed to explain it directly or name it outright. You have to write around it and choose revealing details in order to show it to the reader and let them try to figure it out on their own.

Then, as an added challenge, share the scene or prompt with a friend or critique partner and see if they can guess what you’ve hidden. Did they follow your treasure map to the right answer? If so, well done! You’ve effectively shown instead of told. If not, ask them for more details. What led them to think the way they did? This will help you hone your showing skills.

You don’t have to do this with every scene you write, but it’s a fun way to practice the art of showing and not telling, or in other words, providing an engaging, active reading experience, instead of a boring, inactive one.

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