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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. :P No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)

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  1. MaryZ’s avatar

    Great timing, Mary.

    I went to a conference in June and both an editor and an agent told me “no rhetorical questions.” That’s the first time I had heard that. Now, of course, everything I read has rhetorical questions jumping out at me, including work by my idols, Gary Schwartz and Jack Gantos.

    There must be some places where a question may be used in a non-lazy way, mustn’t there? More so in middle grade? Especially in first person? Will not deleting a question spoil my chances with the agent who has my full? Will Mary mock my comment? What if Paul likes me, too?

  2. Kathryn’s avatar

    Thank you! Nothing drives me more crazy than unnecessary interrogatives in the manuscripts I read. Seriously, nothing takes me out of the reading experience like a question I can’t answer.

  3. Mia’s avatar

    So what is a better way to do it? can you show us how to improve it? (Sorry, I guess those are questions.)

  4. Heidi Sinnett’s avatar

    Brilliant…and so appreciated. Now I’m going to scout my WIP for questions like these. Thank you, Mary!

  5. Garrett’s avatar

    Great piece. This comes up ALL the time. I put the article link in my favorites so I could plug it right into some of my online writing groups.

  6. Cynthia (C.L.) Lewis’s avatar

    I was just editing last night and came across a lovely section of questions. Arggh! I bled a little as I snipped them away with literary scissors.

  7. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    Yes, yes, yes! Trust the reader! There have been several times when I’m reading something and just want to shout to the writer, “I’m smart enough to figure this out! Don’t take all the fun out of reading this story.” I know writers “tell” so they can be sure the story they want gets told, but I like to think of writing/reading as a collaborative art.

  8. Deirdre’s avatar

    Thank you for spelling this out. Cheers!

  9. Shari’s avatar

    Thanks so much for teaching me the effect such questions have on the reader. Very helpful! :)

  10. Katie O'Shea’s avatar

    Excellent post! Thanks!! :)

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