A Lesson in Trust, for Writers


Have you ever read a book or manuscript written by someone who obviously doesn’t trust you? The author tells you what the character is going to do, then shows the character doing it, and finishes by interpreting the actions just in case you didn’t get it. Italics tell us the character is thinking, and the telling goes from there:

Clara saw someone who looked like Ron. I wonder if that’s Ron? She ran ideas through her mind, trying to decide how to find out if he was Ron. Maybe I should just ask him.

She tapped him on the shoulder.

“Are you Ron?” she asked, because she had decided the direct approach would work best.

Maybe not quite this extreme, but similar, perhaps a more subtle rendering of the same thing. The author either doesn’t trust her reader to interpret the action or she doesn’t trust herself to be able to depict what she has in mind. But readers are smart–which shouldn’t surprise anyone, because they are, after all, readers.

Showing a reader what you see in your head provides her with such a beautiful, fulfilling experience that she’ll want to keep reading farther in the story, and farther in your line of books.

I read “The Boy Who Smelled Colors,” a short story by H. Lee Barnes (Red Rock Review, Spring, 2015). The bulk of the first paragraph introduces Julian and Christopher as the characters exploring the Arizona desert. Christopher is the POV character, Julian is his brother. Julian “gazes horizon to horizon as if taking in the landscape.” He wants to “feel the air from different angles.”

The next few paragraphs are dialogue, the brothers discussing the difference between “hot” and “warm,” then we discover this dialogue tag:

“This way.” Christopher aims Julian toward the trailhead and takes his forearm in hand. “Careful. There’s rock ahead.”

Barnes wrote seven paragraphs of prose and dialogue before allowing us to discover Julian was blind, eight more paragraphs before the word blind entered the story. He could’ve begun the story by telling us Christopher was taking his blind brother, Julian, on a tactile tour of the desert, but where would the fun be in that? We discovered a gold nugget that gave a simple adventure a fascinating twist, and the author let us find it all by ourselves.

There are reasons “show, don’t tell” is a general writing rule, and one is to allow the readers the thrill of prospecting. Trust them. Provide just enough information to get the readers to the gold mine, then let them pan for themselves. Chances are, they’ll discover what you want them to and come away with nuggets of understanding.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Lesson in Trust, for Writers

  1. I’ve just finished reading a book which probably does as well as any I’ve read in terms of ‘not telling’ Dorothy B Hughes The Expendable Man. There is a moment when something cataclysmic is shown, The author does not reveal something which another writer might have made plain from the start. The withhold is not gratuitous, but it is astonishingly powerful, and rather makes the reader re-frame and question themselves. Of course, it does make reviewing the book very difficult!


    • Oh, that sounds like a book I’d like to read! I love surprises like that–especially when they come with a head-smacking moment that comes with the realization that you should’ve figured it out, but didn’t. I’ll have to put that on my list!


  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    This totally wasn’t what I was expecting this post to be about. :p Good stuff! And sounds like a good story. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.


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