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.
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.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.