In the never-ending battle between showing and telling, here are three steadfast foot soldiers for the latter cause. These pesky words plague some of the best writers and all of the worst ones.

Of course these are perfectly legitimate words, each with its own set of entirely acceptable uses, but unfortunately, they’re way too often put to improper use.

This whole “show vs. tell” thing tends to come down to a question of what I refer to as “emotional distance.” Stories (in any genre) are about people. True, in fantasy and science fiction, those “people” might be rabbits or elves or Martians, but nonetheless they’re people. Journalism, when done properly, reports on facts, and does so from an emotional distance: TEN DEAD IN MIDWEST TORNADO. Fiction, when done properly, is a shared experience of an imagined event—however impossible or improbable that event may be, and whether or not it’s based in the real world or some fantasy world or distant future. What separates good authors from bad is that good authors bring us into the story, keep us there for as long as they wish, then return us to our own world feeling (not knowing—and there is a difference) as if we’ve actually travelled to some remote place and become some other person.

For the record, actually doing this is extremely difficult, and accounts for the huge difference between the number of people who want to write fiction and the much, much, much smaller number of people who actually can.

That’s kind of a big point to make to introduce a post on why you shouldn’t use three specific words, but there it is.

Consider this sentence:

Galen abruptly stepped out of the hovercar, suddenly realized he was still a thousand feet in the air, and immediately fell to his death.

That’s a variation of a sentence I see all the time, and it’s a fine sentence, all grammatically correct and everything. But this is reporting facts. This isn’t immersive storytelling. Fact: Galen stepped out of the hovercar without looking. Fact: The hovercar is a thousand feet in the air. Fact: Galen fell to his death.

Now consider:

Galen expected his boot to touch the cold plasteel of the landing platform, but a few centimeters and nothing, then his center of gravity was too far out the door and maybe he was only a few more centimeters up. He looked behind him and down and his breath stuck in his throat and every muscle in his body tensed. The landing platform wasn’t there and he was falling, grasping for the hovercar, for anything, but beneath him was just cold, clear air for a thousand feet then the paveways of the city below.

More words in the second version, yes, but notice that things do happen immediately: Galen realizes the landing platform isn’t there. Suddenly: he has a physical panic reaction. Abruptly: he grabs for the hovercar.

But all those things are made clear in context. When you say that someone immediately tries any desperate act conceivable in order to save his own life mid-accident . . . who eventually tries any desperate act conceivable in order to save his own life mid-accident? When you say that someone suddenly falls to his death . . . who gradually falls to his death? When you say that someone abruptly slams the door in someone else’s face . . . who leisurely slams the door in someone else’s face?

I advise actually opening up your work-in-progress or that short story that keeps getting rejected, or whatever you’re writing or have written and doing a search for these three words. Don’t just blindly delete them, of course. We never want to blindly delete anything, even semi-colons. Any or all three of these words are perfectly fine in dialog, for instance. In dialog, all rules go out the window in favor of the way real people actually talk, and different real people from different places and in different states of mind all talk very differently from each other. If a character is telling a story or anecdote to other characters, he might very well say, “And suddenly the cat jumps out!” That’s a character saying that within the story, but your story itself should aspire to more than the recitation of a personal anecdote. It needs to feel natural, even conversational, but in fact has been assembled with utmost care and thought to the emotional weight of each and every sentence, each and every word. It needs to be immersive, not factual, emotional, not intellectual. So when you find immediately, suddenly, or abruptly in description, don’t just delete it, start writing around it. Convey the psychological and emotional effects of a bomb going off, regardless of how many more words it might take. And indeed it might take fewer words:

Galen turned the key in the hovercar’s ignition and suddenly the bomb in the engine went off, abruptly ending the worst day of Galen’s life by immediately blowing him to smithereens.

Might end up as:

Galen turned the key in the hovercar’s ignition and there was a click and a flash of light then nothing.

Now cut to the aftermath of the explosion in which a tearful Bronwyn vows revenge. Remember, if Galen is the POV character, all we (the readers) should get is what he knows and no more. Does he know it was a bomb? Is he at all aware of being blown to smithereens? Does he have even a split second to realize the hovercar is blowing up? Leave your readers, like Galen, wondering what the heck just happened—it was bad, it looks like the hovercar was rigged to explode when he turned the engine on, but then what? Is he dead? I have questions! I’m in the story! I care what happens next!


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, horror novels, how to write fiction, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Romance Novels, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Anna Dobritt says:

    I have list of words I use too much. When I edit I use the Find feature in word, then work on rewording the sentent those words appear in 😀 I call it my Search & Destroy List

    • T. J. P. Campbell says:

      I use a set of set of macros which I have put on the taskbar rhythm, which I called My_Editing. I have macros for sentences longer than a certain number of words which are coloured orange, and longer sentences coloured red. I can easily adjust these two sentence lengths. And as for the find feature. I have macros for finding, filler words, filter words, telling words, and verbs, redundant words or phrases etc.

      I have made my word group search macros very easy to compose by using one macro that lists the words I seek, another that will search for these words (the same macro that all the other macros will use), and finally, a macro that will de-highlight all of the words it has highlighted. I also use the Prowritingaid premium paid word addin. However, just like Grammarly, these add-ins take an age to run on a long file, such as your completed novel. But these macros are very fast.

      By the way, I also only use word as I have found a way to use it that I find way easier than any writing a program such as Scrivener. Are you sub documents and each chapter is a separate file. I use this method for a lot of reasons. One is so that I can use Dragon to dictate words into my chapters on occasions as well as listen to the words using text aloud (both are add-ins and appear on the task ribbon). Anyway …

      Here are the three macros for finding telling words (I’ve just put a few telling words in to give you the idea):

      Sub TellingWords()

      ‘ Simple Telling Words find

      WordCheck (“could see”)
      WordCheck (“saw”)
      WordCheck (“notice”)
      WordCheck (“noticing”)
      WordCheck (“consider”)
      WordCheck (“smell”)
      WordCheck (“hear”)
      WordCheck (“felt”)
      WordCheck (“knew”)
      WordCheck (“know”)
      WordCheck (“reali”)
      WordCheck (“think”)
      WordCheck (“thought”)
      WordCheck (“thinking”)
      WordCheck (“believe”)
      WordCheck (“wonder”)

      End Sub

      Sub WordCheck(sWord)
      Selection.Find.Replacement.Highlight = True
      With Selection.Find
      .Text = sWord
      .Replacement.Text = “”
      .Forward = True
      .Wrap = wdFindContinue
      .Format = True
      .MatchCase = False
      .MatchWholeWord = False
      .MatchWildcards = False
      .MatchSoundsLike = False
      .MatchAllWordForms = False
      End With
      Selection.Find.Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
      End Sub

      Sub De_highlight()
      ActiveDocument.range.HighlightColorIndex = wdNoHighlight
      End Sub

      Note for whole word searches , change the line:
      MatchWholeWord = False
      MatchWholeWord = True

      T. J. P. Campbell

  2. Helen says:

    ‘Show don’t tell’ is a difficult concept to grasp when you are just starting out with your first novel (as I am). In two simple examples you’ve demonstrated that concept perfectly. Thanks!

    • T. J. P. Campbell says:

      Yeah, but never forget that it is often wise to tell not show. A mastery of tell and show will allow an author to control the pace of the novel and its readability.

      T. J. P. Campbell.

  3. Tharcion says:

    One day everyone will finally learn the lessons of ‘gotos considered harmful’. But not yet.

  4. Pingback: Meanwhile … | Chronicles of the Scribe

  5. Pingback: WRITE IN ECSTASY, EDIT WITH INTENT | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  6. Pingback: PUNCH, PUSH, EXPLAIN | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  7. Pingback: WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 2 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  8. T. J. P. Campbell says:

    If I wrote the following in my first draft:

    Urko abruptly jumped off the tree branch, suddenly realizing the safety net beneath him was no longer being held by his fellow gorillas, he immediately fell to his death.

    This is how I might edit it:

    Urko had to get on with things, the time travelling humans were getting away. On the upper branches of the oak tree, he tucked his seeing glass securely away in his shoulder bag.

    He looked down.

    “Hold that safety net taut,” he shouted down to his fellow gorillas.

    “We’re all ready for you, General!” shouted up Lieutenant Aldo.

    Urko jumped.

    But no sooner had he jumped when he heard a commotion beneath him.

    He looked down.

    In the clearing below, his fellow gorillas had scrambled in all directions, dropping the safety net.

    “Aaaaaaargh!” he screamed, his eyes wide open with fear.

    “Why?” he thought, before slamming into the ground and bouncing up a few inches as if he were a giant hairy ragdoll.

    Broken and barely alive, he glimpsed an approaching band of fearsome humans.

    “Huh, armed slave-humans?”

    Pain, upon pain seared through Urko’s brain as he felt violent kick after violent kick smashing into his dying broken body. It seemed the only weapons that the slave-humans preferred to use were their feet.

    Urko wondered if he would at least live long enough to survive his pummeling.

    Seconds later …

    “Let’s go,” said a female human.

    “But Number 1, he’s still breathing,” said a male human.

    “If he survives, fair play to him. Never forget, Number 3, we’re not apes; we’re humans. We kill to defend ourselves. They kill for pleasure.”

    Toodles for now.
    T. J. P. Campbell

    P.S. I’ve put this example in other the comment sections of other webpages concerning this topic.

  9. Pingback: THE ELECTRIC CHAIR: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 4 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  10. Pingback: WHITE MAN’S MADNESS, CHAPTER 2: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 9 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  11. Pingback: THE OCEAN LEECH: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 16 | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  12. Pingback: REVISION SEARCH PATTERNS | Fantasy Author's Handbook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s