How to trick your readers into paying attention

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The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, is one of the greatest books I have ever read. This was a big surprise, because it was published in 2005 by a thirty-something author, and I’m not often impressed by modern literature. But this book belongs among the classics.

What drives me nuts is that even though most people who read it love it, few seem to have a clue why – and thus cannot fully appreciate its awesomeness. Basically, it is a perfect example of one of the finer aspects of Show, Don’t Tell: trick your readers into paying attention.

The classic authors, the ones who evolved storytelling from folk art into fine art, found new ways to describe everyday things. They looked at the world with poet’s eyes and then wrote it in a way that hit their readers in the gut. New authors, however, generally just copy the old ones, and what was once creative has now become cliché.

Here’s an example:

Snow blanketed the ground like a great white sheet. Next to the train line, there was a trail of deep footprints. Trees were coated in ice.

There is nothing wrong with this. The imagery is really good – at least, it was the first time some writer looked at snow and said “hmm, that looks like a blanket.” But how many times have you seen “snow blanketed the ground/mountains/landscape” in a book? Chances are, you’ve seen it so many times, that you glaze over it. Consider instead Zusak’s version:

It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it had pulled it on, the way you pull on a sweater. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice.

Notice he uses the same concept as in the first excerpt – he even uses the word “blanket” – but he does it in a new way. He personalizes the simile (“the way you would pull on a sweater”), and compares snow with clothing in an active way that gives inanimate objects a human quality. The globe pulled on a sweater. Footprints sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets.

The plane was still spewing smoke. A black haze poured from the engines. When it crashed, it had made three deep gashes in the earth, and its wings had been ripped from its body.

Again, not bad. Terms like spewing, poured, gashes, and ripped from its body make it interesting. But all that has been done before. Let’s try Zusak:

The plane was still coughing. Smoke was leaking from both its lungs. When it crashed, three deep gashes were made in the earth. Its wings were now sawn-off arms. No more flapping. Not for this metallic little bird.

Notice again the human qualities he gives the plane, even though he goes on to compare it with a bird. Coughing. Lungs. Arms. It’s so strange, you have to slow down to decipher it; you have to pay attention. Which, in turn, makes you feel every word.

Writing this way is hard. You can’t just pour it out – you have to think about it. But it can mean the difference between great writing, and okay writing. I read somewhere that Zusak tried to put one great thing on every page. My advice is to do the same. Also, read The Book Thief.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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16 Comments

  1. Everything about that book was amazing.

    • Agreed. The first sentence, the last sentence, all the sentences in between. The heartbreak of the narrator, the little interruptions in flow, the pictures, the characters, the story itself. That book is genius in ways mere mortals can only dream of equaling. I could probably write several more posts on it – in fact, I didn’t even have space to explain what it was about in this post!

  2. I just have to chime in because yes I agree this was one of the most amazing books I’ve read, hands down, ever. And to top off how incredibly unexpected that was, is the fact that it was given to me as a young adult genre book. Not that young adult fiction can’t be good, but this good?! Man. Thanks for posting on it, and I hope all your readers do read it if they have not.

  3. Mmmmm. Great advice that can’t be repeated enough. Show, don’t tell. And avoid cliches. Nonetheless, I personally sometimes write the cliches in the first draft then go back to them in the second draft and ask, “how could I say this differently?”

  4. Wow. Something to strive for indeed, in our own voice of course. Thanks for sharing!

  5. And yet more food for thought. There I days when I despair of ever being satisfied with my writing.

    • Tell me about it. I’ve spent 10+ years on the same WIP, and I’ve been at my wit’s end with it for a year or two now. I’ve stepped away from it for months on end, to come back with fresher eyes, and I’ve given it to other fresh eyes to read, but we are still in a wrestling match, the novel and me. Fortunately, I still love working on it. Will I ever finish it? My new motto is “dum spiro, spero” – “while I breathe, I hope.”

      • That is a good motto. I am coming up on 18 years of experience, now. I keep most of my old manuscripts to prove to myself that I have improved over time, lest I despair. Eighteen years, though, and I have never finished anything over short-story length. I am determined to finish SOMETHING before I hit 20 years of experience, even if I still want to edit whatever I have finished. With any luck, friends or family might be able to wrest a completed manuscript from my cold dead fingers and publish it posthumously. 😉

  6. From the little I have seen, I doubt you write much that is “terrible” though I know every writer has his/her off-days, and most of us are very hard on our own stuff.

  7. Thank you for this. The Book Thief is one of my favorite reads.

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