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Show, Don't Tell. But Why?

Man holds onto thin branch suspended from cliff side

Especially when writing fiction or crafting interesting and engaging marketing copy, if you want to keep your readers "hooked", don't tell them everything that happens. Here's why.

For novels and short stories especially, seek out ways to drip-feed your readers with carefully chosen clues throughout your "story", at a meaningful time, or as the plot develops.


Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Engage your reader with intrigue, mystery, and suspense.
  • Let your characters describe the scene, naturally, yet without giving too much away. Train your characters to "talk" as people in real life often communicate: with information missing, making assumptions, and so on.
  • Resist the urge to explain too much: allow your readers to "connect the dots" themselves. That's how readers can feel closer to, or inside the action. People who connect the dots enjoy a greater sense of belonging to, or in connection with, the story.
  • Portray word magic using the human senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and speech. Maybe even toy with intuition and the sixth sense.
  • Relate to what is familiar to your readers. Why: to describe something alien calls for special efforts. For such topics, you can use comparisons, metaphors, similarities, to not only add some explanation, but vibrancy, interest, color.
  • Let your characters deliver their message. Whenever appropriate, use lots of dialog, with your characters taking centre stage, steering what happens, driving the course of your novel.
  • Paint a picture with words but don't tell. Instead, leave enough for your readers to make their own discoveries, form their own conclusions, or make their own best guesses. Ideally: early on, allow for several possible outcomes. You can spring surprises later. Or not. Curiosity and expectancy combined create a sizzling mix and power all of their own.

Key tip: As you reach the end of your "story", if you provide some puzzling doubt, a curious conclusion, or a "cliff-hanger", you can help ensure that the saga can continue through one or more possible follow-up versions later.

Round up: so describe and show rather than tell. Make use of sensory information, and let your readers form their own thoughts from the responses of your characters, the plot and the developments. In this way, you can help build suspense, drama, tension, anxiety, love, hate, even apathy. Then you have a story — perhaps the story of us all.

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