Don’t Doubt Your Reader’s Imaginations
It’s the age-old advice of Show, Don’t Tell.
There’s a lot of writing advice out there, but one of the most common things you’ll be told, especially as a newer writer, is likely going to sound really familiar to you. Ready? I know, I know. You’ve probably heard this a thousand times before: Show, don’t tell.
But what does it mean?
Don’t tell readers, “She was angry.”
Do show them, “Her nails bit into her palms as her heart rose to a thrumming beat in her temples. Cheryl chewed her lip as she fought to keep from screaming at her daughter.”
Don’t tell readers, “He felt nervous.”
Do show them, “Clint eyed the door, wondering if he could somehow salvage his job if he just ran for it before the big meeting had even started. He was certain everyone could hear his ragged breathing as it hitched in his throat time and time again.”
Don’t tell readers, “Storm was shocked by what they saw.”
Do show them, “Storm couldn’t believe their eyes. Was Ethan really doing a handstand in the middle of the post office? Waving their arms in protest, Storm marched over to their fiance, sighing in pure exasperation.”
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
- Anton Chekhov
Trust your readers
Don’t undercut readers’ imaginations. Telling your reader something rather than letting them piece it together from contextual clues undermines their intelligence and their agency. Let them come to their own understanding based on the hints you’ve given them (setting, character’s dialogue, their physical reactions, hints from all five senses, etc.). Your readers are smart and don’t want to be spoon-fed or treated like they can’t figure things out themselves.
Trust them to follow along and they will reward you with their attention and loyalty.
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Deidre Delpino Dykes, an author of speculative fiction, may actually be three birds in a trench coat. She is the co-organizer of the Columbia Writers critique group in Maryland and a passionate player and GM of tabletop role playing games. She is working on a novel-length manuscript and enjoys writing short and flash fiction, some of which has appeared in Wizards in Space vol. 1, Ghosts on Drugs, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Deidre tweets as @DeidreDykes and previously worked as a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.