Posted On October 28, 2015 by Print This Post

Let Your Readers Think For Themselves – by Ryan Lanz

Please welcome back author and blogger 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 Ryan Lanzwith 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.

Instead of “Jennifer realized that she would be late to her meeting”:
Jennifer slammed her briefcase down on the seat. She hated how her boss consistently managed to keep the team behind an extra fifteen minutes. She jabbed her finger on the steering wheel while trying to insert the keys into the ignition. Once she arrived at the foot of the bridge, the view opened up before her. The long line of creeping cars along the bridge sparkled in the sunlight. She checked her watch. Five minutes till.

Instead of “Rob knew Susan was upset with him”:
Rob had barely tugged his winter jacket off before he heard fingernails tapping on the kitchen counter. With a sigh, he turned the corner and saw what he expected. She sat on the edge of a stool with her legs crossed, one arm crossed, and the other lay on the Formica with her fingers splayed out. Even as he entered, she didn’t look up–only kept tapping.
“Hello, dear. How was your day?” he asked.
“What’s it to you?”

Instead of “Stephanie realized that she was in danger”:
Only one more mile to go. Stephanie decided to take the long route back to her house. The slow, steady rhythm of her footfalls against the pavement was oddly relaxing. This was the one part of the day that was only hers. Not her husband’s, not her children’s, just hers. Besides, the remaining ten pounds of baby weight taunted her. She hated not reaching her goals.
A street light flickered overhead and then went out. She never realized how dark this street was without it. Although her skin gleamed with sweat, Stephanie shivered. She allowed her footsteps to fade to the back of her mind. It took her a moment to notice the second set. Turning around, nothing looked back that she could see.

From somewhere over her shoulder, a dog howeled. Three shadows dripped out of a nearby alley, walking toward her as if they had all night. Stephanie whipped her head back around and ran.

Instead of “Sherry remembered how much she missed Brad”:
The water played in between her toes as Sherry scooted down further into the tub. Warm water washed over her shoulders. It had been a hard few months. Three hundred sixty-four days until Brad would come home. From the moment she released her arms from around the neck of his uniform, she knew how tough it would be to wait. A tear rolled down her cheek and mixed with the water just below her chin.

You might be thinking to yourself, But that’s much harder and more words than just coming out and saying it. Exactly. Quality writing is supposed to be hard. According to Forbes, between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books/ebooks are published every year in the US alone. Every year. The competition out there is staggering. With so many authors clamoring for readers’ attention, naturally ways would evolve to make writing more difficult, but in ways that would make those authors stand out from the crowd.

In other words, if an author is consistently looking for the easy and comfortable ways to write, they likely will find themselves lost in the sea of average writers. I’m not saying this is the one golden ticket, but your book/story deserves every advantage you can give it.

Are there situations where you might want to, for artistic reasons, go ahead and use “thought” verbs, anyway? Of course. I do it occasionally. But, for me, the key is that I’m doing it a lot less than I have before, and I’ve noticed an improvement in the quality of my writing because of it. Just like how exclamation marks aren’t “bad,” neither is using “thought” verbs, but like a strong spice, it’s best used sparingly.

Are you guilty of taking the easy way out and announcing your character’s thoughts?

***

Unknown SenderUNKNOWN SENDER [Applebury Press – June 2015]

Jessica’s world revolves around studying at college and affording prepackaged meals, which leaves little time for socializing. In fact, she is quite content without being noticed, which only makes the attention of a mystery texter all the more unwanted.

She isn’t unfamiliar with strange advances, but this is something entirely different. This person knows things about her. Things beyond just an average stalker.

Even after all that, Jessica would be much more content to forget than discover who is chasing her, electronically or otherwise. Eventually, she finds out that she can’t outrun her past.

***

Bio: Ryan Lanz was born and raised on the island of Oahu in Hawaii until he was a teenager and then lived in California for a time. He enjoyed a brief experience with film before becoming involved in the performing arts, touring with a music performance group as a vocalist to a dozen countries on three continents over the length of five years.

His first published work was Unknown Sender, and he looks forward to many more in a variety of genres.

He also enjoys blogging about the culture of writing and brings on guest authors to share their writing tips. For more information, visit Ryan’s website or follow him on Twitter.

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7 Responses to “Let Your Readers Think For Themselves – by Ryan Lanz”

  1. Great examples. Will keep your suggestions in my book of “rules” for sure. Thanks.

    Posted by Elizabeth Torphy | October 28, 2015, 8:56 am
  2. Great post. I was looking over a paragraph that had me stumped and it was the “missed” in it. I revised using your method and the character’s homesickness comes through deeper now. Thank you!

    Posted by Mercy | October 28, 2015, 11:17 am
  3. My book is coming out this fall. I’ve spent my advance, celebrated with popcorn, Diet Pepsi, and glazed doughnuts, and a movie.

    But what this story taught me was a biggie. Because the story is built upon a hugely controversial, paranormal element that has caused guys to get in fights in bars and church, and women to to wait for their friendsin alleys with drawn swords, I discovered that I don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, explain every mysterious detail.

    While writing, I made the plot comment that, in this particular one of the 50 states, there are mysteries. I present four of these fictional mysteries, but I do not solve them. (These unsolved mysteries leave great potential for sequels.)

    When my greatest critic read the draft, she called screaming, threatening, then pleading, for me to tell what’s up with these mysterious elements. (I have come to call them, mysteriods. Like factoids, the reality of them may or may not exist or be true.) I held fast, declining to explain them further for now.

    I have come to live with her rage. But I do admit I have my wife cover my journey from the car to the house with her Glock 0, thinking that my biggest critic may decide a friendship that has existed since the third grade and Osborn School is not worth the wait for the answers in subsequent stories. I can see that she may be willing to hire thugs from Chinese Triads or German gangs to try to beat the answer from me.

    Letting people think for themselves instead of pop-tarting answers to them may be one of most valuable tools in my box (excuse the mixing of metaphors).

    I may, or I may not, let you know what happens down the road.

    Posted by Jim Porter | October 28, 2015, 12:02 pm
  4. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Ryan. This reminds of something author Jennifer Crusie mentioned in a workshop some years ago. She discussed the importance of leaving “white space” in a story for the reader to fill in. It’s taken awhile, but I think I finally understand what she was getting at. Not sure I’ve figured out how to do it, but it sounds a lot like what you’re describing here. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 28, 2015, 10:48 pm
  5. Thank you for a good coverage of this constantly recurring difficulty in a writer’s life. The analogy with crime writing is a very good one, and your use of examples makes the matter even more clear. An excellent and helpful post.

    Posted by Judith Rook | October 29, 2015, 9:21 am

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