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.
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  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

  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!

  3. Tharcion says:

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

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