Friday, March 01, 2019

Choosing the Right Words for the Scene: Subtle Changes Can Make a Difference

word choice, show vs tell
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A single word or phrase can alter how a sentence reads. 

It always tickles me how a single edit can dramatically effect a piece of writing. The power of language and how we choose to wield it is what sets one writer apart from another. It's in our voices, our styles, and how we tell our tales.

Mark Twain famously calls it the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, but it's more than that. The decision to use filter words versus not, to use description versus internalization, to embrace a character's voice or the author's voice--these choices all shape the writing in unique ways. It's also why ten writers can take the same premise and create ten different novels. Just look at how many re-tellings exist, from Romeo & Juliet, to fairy tales, to stories that all draw from the same thematic archetype.

The words we choose matter. It makes a story ours.

show vs tell, filter words
The right word matters.
Back when I was writing Blue Fire, I did a lot of tweaking, and I noticed the differences these edits made to some of the scenes. What it came down to most often, was taking words anyone could have written and revising them with more voice--either mine or my protagonist's.

Let's take a closer look at one of those instances. This particular paragraph appears in the first few chapters of the book. My first attempt looked like:
We slipped out through the gates and onto the farm proper. Horses grazed in roped off corrals, with several wagons nearby. I saw a few carriages mixed in, proof that wealth didn't protect you from the Duke's soldiers.
This felt flat to me, because "saw" is a boring verb. It's accurate, but since I'm describing what was seen, we already know my protagonist, Nya, saw it. She's the point-of-view character after all. It doesn't add anything to the sentence and makes it feel told. It also uses a filter word, and I wanted a tighter point of view. The filter word pushed readers away.

(Here's more on how filter words affect point of view)

So I rewrote it without the telling filter word:
We slipped out through the gates and onto the farm proper. Horses grazed in roped off corrals, with several wagons nearby. There were a few carriages mixed in, proof that wealth didn't protect you from the Duke's soldiers.
Again, a perfectly legitimate sentence, but this feels the same way. Flat, authorial, telling you what was there instead of showing Nya seeing it. There's no real sense of her here, and this could be any narrator describing this. It doesn't share any additional information beyond what it already there on the page.

(Here are five edits to strengthen your writing, right now)

In the final draft, I wrote it like this:
We slipped out through the gates and onto the farm proper. Horses grazed in roped off corrals, with several wagons nearby. I even spotted a few carriages mixed in, proof that wealth didn't protect you from the Duke's soldiers.
POV, revision, editing
Pick the words that do the most good.
To me, these three simple words convey more than just what was there and shift this into Nya's voice and point of view. "Spotted" implies she was looking for things, searching for something, so she's actively engaged in what's going on and not just a casual observer. "Even spotted" suggests the carriages might have been hidden or were unexpected to find, which could imply there's more to those carriages than meets the eye. It uses judgment from Nya, so it reads as if she's proud that she was able to spot those possibly hidden carriages.

(Here's more on the little things holding a manuscript back)

It may not seem like much of a change, but multiply this by the thousands of paragraphs in a novel, and you eliminate thousands of told prose or flat writing. You take advantage of every opportunity to let the writing work harder for you, showing both what's there and why it matters. The writing becomes layered and richer than writing that just explains the story and moves on.

It's the subtle things that make a difference between grabbing a reader and letting them skim. What words you use in your writing create the voice and style so it's not just a basic description anyone could have written. A minor word change can also change a paragraph from told and flat to shown and interesting.

How much attention do you pay to the little words and subtle changes? 

*Originally published June 2010. Last updated March 2019.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks, Janice. I always have trouble thinking up ways to get around those boring works like "saw" and "look". I try to avoid "felt" as much as possible!

  2. Hmmm, your right subtlety is best. I never even think of these things on my own. Where would we be without you?

  3. Thanks! Actually, you guys have helped me a lot. I know I need material for the blog, so I pay so much more attention to what I'm doing and why now when I write. Win-win for all!

  4. Thanks Janice! I just went through my ms and reworked those dull verbs. Just a few changes adds so much sparkle.

  5. This is great advice!

  6. I've been thinking about the need to do a search for those verbs through my manuscripts, actually--but it was one of your posts that made me notice that I needed to do that. Not that I can remember which one. >_<

    Question: How would you handle a narrative character hearing somebody (who isn't talking) move away without being able to see it, without using some variation of "hear" or "sound"?

    I have an example at home that's been bothering me, an intro to a story that I'm hoping to seriously work on next month. There's a "hear" that I've not yet figured out how to do without, even while it feels like it damages the scene. I can e-mail it, if you'd prefer to help by slaughtering it. ^_^

  7. I love the little tweak. Amazing how much it changes the feel.

  8. Oh, an excellent clue. Added "saw" to my list of words to search for. Amazing what a difference replacing a word does. Do more of these posts, please!

  9. Will do, Margo! That's why I keep an eye out for this stuff when I revise (or write).

  10. Great point! I will be keeping a much keener eye out for those dull verbs as I edit now. Thanks for posting this!

  11. Thanks for this tip. Will put it to good use on my manuscript as I have been trying to make it pop!

  12. Really nice tip though I have to admit I prefer the rhythm of the second version. For me it's about finding the rhythm that makes a sentence not feel like a piece of writing.

  13. Excellent Janice. Verbs are my weak spot, but fortunately I don't sweat it much in the first draft. Revising though? That's the tricky part.

  14. Tara: Nothing wrong with that :) Everyone has their own tastes. The second version does have a more formal tone to it, while the third is more in the protag's voice. And I agree, rhythm is so important.

    Kevin: Good plan. I try not to worry about anything in the first draft but getting it down on paper. Then the hard work can start :)

  15. Janice's book is flat-out revelatory. Highly recommend!

    1. Aw, thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it.