You Really Don’t Need to Tell Them

My youngest son is a good writer.

In fact, all my kids are good writers. (so sayeth their proud mama.) But my youngest son invites me to edit his writing on occasion so I have more opportunity to read what he writes.

Like many high school students schooled in the art of the five-paragraph essay, he’s been trained to – tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

And he’s very good at essay – particularly argumentative essay (don’t know where he gets all that passion from….)

I was comfortable with that format when I was a teenager. It made writing a little less subjective. Clear objectives make me happy. I like to know what I’m aiming at.

5 paragraph xmas

The formulas that work in essay-writing don’t apply as well to fiction writing (or memoir).

It should be more like – tease them with what you might tell them, don’t tell them anything until you have to, and then surprise them with how it all ties together in the end.

Or something like that.

Fiction shouldn’t be easy. Or comfortable. Or necessarily clear.

When critiquing a beginning writer, I tend to cross-out all kinds of details the reader doesn’t need yet (we teach best what we most need to learn). Many of us feel the reader needs to know everything we’re thinking. They don’t. They don’t need to know that Henry used to work at the Pizza Hut even if you remember his tortured youth spent rolling dough. (Unless, of course, he now falls on the floor with the shakes every time he sees a pizza….and that lands him in the pysch ward where he meets the woman of his dreams….)

The reader only needs to know what’s necessary to carry the story forward. Don’t water down your story with unnecessary details.

Unlike the essay reader, you want your fiction reader to be worried, curious, unsure where you’re going, not distracted by details that don’t matter and following inconsequential detours that are really a delay tactic because you like the sound of your voice.


Keep it moving.

I’ll say it again – only tell the reader what’s necessary for the story. Some details are. Some aren’t. As the writer, it’s your job to know the difference.



This is not a Five Paragraph Essay. Don’t ever tell them what you’re going to tell them, just tell them.

But don’t tell them everything.

And if you write a good story, there will be no need to tell them what you told them in the end. In fact, if you do it really well, you’ll leave them wondering what else you might be able to tell them in your next story.

Hey, thanks for reading. I know you’ve got lots of options, so thanks for sharing a few of your minutes with me.



If you’d like to know more about me, my books, and where you might run into me, check out my website,

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Released Aug 2018 from Pegasus books:

Another Good Dog cover

Author: Cara Sue Achterberg

I am a writer, blogger, and dog rescuer. I live in the darling town of Woodstock, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley with my husband and three rescue dogs (who rescue me on a daily basis). Find more information about my books, my dogs, and all my writing adventures at

2 thoughts on “You Really Don’t Need to Tell Them”

  1. I am laughing having been a relentless perpetrator of the 5 paragraph essay for more than 30 years. It was a tough adjustment for students to understand the five paragraph essay was just a tool in their development as writers. Some clung to it as they hugged banky back in the day. I couldn’t blame them. It is very difficult to learn to write a good thesis statement and a tough crossing to accept that it’s the writer’s choice later whether to put that sucker in the actual work or just retain it for one’s own reference.


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