Friday, February 08, 2019

Send up the (Red) Flag: Telling Words That Often Spell Trouble in Our Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's easier to find told prose in your work when you know what red flag words to look for.

Show, don't tell is one of those pieces of advice that nearly every writer hears at some point, and not just when we're just starting out. Even when we know how to fix it (use strong nouns and verbs), we can't always find the problem in our work to fix it.

This frustrated me back in the day, and I set off to figure out how to find told prose. After a lot of study and analyzing, I found a series of "red flag words" often found in told prose. Not every word found meant the prose that contained it was told, but when I received feedback that a section sounded told, one of these red flag words almost always appeared.

Let's look at a quick round-up of the different types of red flag words commonly found in told prose.

Red Flag Tells for Motives

Motivational tells explain the motives of the characters, frequently before the character has even made the action. They're problematic because they don't show action actually happening, so they feel as though we've shown, even when we haven't. To and when are repeat offenders here.
Bob ran to the shed to get the shotgun.

When Bob ran to the shed for the shotgun, the zombie was already there.
Motivational tells can push the reader away and over-explain, killing tension and leaving little for the reader to wonder about.

(Here's more on 7 Words That Often Tell, Not Show)

Red Flag Tells for Emotions

Emotional tells explain feelings, robbing us of the chance to connect with readers on an emotional level. It's much harder to feel for a character when you're told they're sad, versus seeing them sobbing on the floor. In and with take center stage here.
Bob screamed in fear.

Sally sighed with relief.
Emotional tells don't allow for the individual characters to express how they feel. "Fear" can be felt in many ways, and how a particular character reveals their fear says a lot about that character. "In fear" tells readers very little.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

Red Flag Tells for Descriptions 

Descriptive tells explain the action. These are trickier to spot because they often feel just fine until you notice that you're telling the reader what they should be able to figure out by how the character is acting. Offenders include realize, could see, the sound of, and as.
Jane staggered out of the room clutching her side, and Bob realized she'd been hurt.

Bob could see from the way Jane was bleeding that she'd hurt herself.

The sound of a sharp bang echoed across the valley.

As Bob climbed on the roof, the zombie grabbed his foot.
Often, a descriptive tell is redundant as well, as in the first example. Jane staggering and clutching her side shows something is wrong, and if we add blood under her fingers, soaking through her shirt, we've shown she's hurt and don't need to tell readers that Bob "realized" it. He can just react.

(Here's more on I Told You: Mental Signposts That Tell, Not Show)

Red Flags for Placeholder Words

Placeholder words are missed opportunities to flesh out a scene, and adverbs are the number-one offender here. When you see an adverb, there's a good chance that you can improve the section by using details that show what that adverb means.
Bob shook his fist angrily.

Jane moved nervously across the field.
These are places where further description, internal thought, or action would show how a character acts when angry or nervous, and allow writers to bring that character to life.

(Here's more on The Freedom of Placeholder Words in First Drafts)

Red Flags for Passive Tells

Passive tells feel flat and lifeless, because the subject of the sentence is being acted upon, not doing the acting. This can make readers feel detached from what's going on, and distance them from the story. Most often it's due to passive "to be" verbs.
Bob was tripped by the severed leg.

Sally was being chased from the angry mob.
Passive tells can steal all the excitement and immediacy from a scene, and undermine the writer's attempt to build tension and suspense.

(Here's more on The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction)

Although it's useful to train yourself to spot (and fix) these words as you write, it's okay to not worry about them in a first draft. Get the story down, but afterward, search for them and revise as needed. These are also good words to look for when you receive feedback on scenes that feel told or flat.

Not every instance of red flag words is going to be trouble, but they're often found in sections of the novel that have received negative feedback.

Are you guilty of using these red flag words? 

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 for pointing out the red flags. Showing and not telling is something that troubles me, so it's always good to have some kind of reference. The more I write, the more I'm able to catch it, though.

  2. Wow! Looks like I have some problems I didn't know I had. :) Thanks for the great info!

  3. These are great reminders- thanks so much for posting this!

    PS- Would you please do another post or two on revision after the New Year? I'll bet a lot of the NaNo people will be letting their manuscripts rest during December, so January would be a good "get-in-shape" month (both manuscript-wise and physically--unfortunately, I'm anticipating the usual holiday five-pound gain). Thanks again :)

  4. This is a truly fantastic post. I'm sure you've heard of Wordle but in case anyone here hasn't,
    here's how to use it.

  5. This is exactly what I needed. My ms is exploding with "was"'ssss all over the place. Argh....Love the examples too.

  6. Great post, Janice! *heads over to twitter to share*


  7. One thing I love about you Janice is that you know your stuff. I don't think I could have written a post like this because I wouldn't be able to recognize some! *running off to read and study up*

  8. This blog is a treasure trove of good advice made usable! Thank you again!

  9. Melissa: That's exactly how this list came to be. Years ago I started making a "double check" list to remind myself of things to watch out for. Eventually I taught myself not to use them as much and my writing improved. I'm sure yours will too!

    Deborah: I hope that's not a bad thing, LOL.

    Jess: I do a post on revisions every Wednesday, so there's always lots of editing ideas available. But I love the idea of a get in shape post in January! Thanks.

    Phillip: Never heard of Wordle, and the link didn't work. Re-post the address?

    E.Arroyo: Great timing then! Was isn't such a bad word on it's on, but it hangs out with some bad dudes sometimes.

    Coffeelvnmom: Thanks!

    Sierra: Thanks! These things are years in the making. I save good tips, make templates and lists, keep notes, etc. My writing files are full of things. A lot of tricks I came up with when I was teaching online classes, and some posts actually came from my lectures there. You see a lot more when you're actively keeping an eye out for stuff to blog abut, too :)

    Ben: Most welcome. Always happy to help.

  10. Bookmarked that post, for later use >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  11. This is a great post, Janice! I will bookmark this for future (near future) reference. One I don't quite get though is this:

    As Bob climbed on the roof, the zombie grabbed his foot.

    I'm not sure how that shows motivation. To me it just shows two actions happening at the same time. I could see the other two because you're telling Bob's motivation (to get the shotgun) but with this sentence alone, I don't see the same thing. Maybe I'm not thinking of it in the right way??

  12. Hi Janice,

    Thanks for these revision tips, they're helping me edit smarter, more efficient,and faster. Did I mention faster? Who wouldn't love that combo?

  13. Cold As Heaven: Cool! I Have a whole slew of those myself.

    Angie: You are totally right, great catch. There are was to use as in a motivational way, but I guess I didn't get a good example. I've moved it to the descriptive flag section :)

    Taurean: That's awesome! Faster is good when it comes to edits.

  14. This is incredibly helpful--thank you so much for posting! I'm going to share this with my critique group tonight :)

  15. Perfect timing! Thank you!

  16. *Ahem* At the risk of drawing ire:

    "Bob was tripped by the severed leg." IS passive voice - the severed leg is doing the tripping, not Bob.

    "Sally was running from the angry mob." IS NOT passive voice, it's imperfect tense. Passive voice would be:

    "Sally was being chased by the angry mob."

    HOWEVER, imperfect tense is often better replaced by simple past, e.g.

    "Sally ran from the mob."

    Imperfect tense is OK when describing an ongoing action:

    "Sally was washing the dishes when the phone rang."

    OK, grammar nazi rant over... :)

  17. I bookmarked this post for future reference - there's so much here to work from! I've used some of these red flags myself, sometimes with the mental note "I know I'll be changing this later..."

    Thanks for posting!

  18. Rachel, Anna & Matthew: Most welcome!

    Anne: No ire here, I do make mistakes, and I appreciate it when folks let me know so I can correct them. :) I really need to stop using was running as an example. Gerunds are tough because there are places (as you showed) where it's fine. I did mention that on the post that's linked to under that example.

    Elizabeth: "I'll change it later" is such a great tool. Make a note, then move on. That might be a good post, actually. :) Thanks!

  19. Another grammar nazi here.

    You headed the section Passive Writing, not Passive Voice. I'm not at all fond of it, but I've come to accept that some people use 'passive writing' as an umbrella term for several types of weak sentence construction, so I was willing to let the "was running" example go without comment.

    OTOH, "These are those sentences that feel flat and lifeless, because the subject of the sentence is being acted upon, not doing the acting" describes passive voice, but "To be verbs are recurring problems" is back to passive writing again.

    I think it's worthwhile to maintain the distinction: Passive voice is a very specific grammatical term with a very specific definition, while passive writing is a general term with fuzzy edges.

    PS. The More on passive writing link goes to a post about prepositions.

  20. Fennel: Fixed, and thanks again. I did mean more of the general "passive writing" than the specific, but passive verbs tend to be a big culprit there, as I wasn't as clear as I should have been. And this is also something that I can do, but I obviously still goof up while trying to help others get it. (grin)

    One of my grammar guru's want to write a guest post on "passive" and help clear up the difference between the various uses of the word in writing? Or just send me some good info on the grammar side and I'll slip it in with a general post of the different types. I think we could all (myself included) use a good definitive guide for this sucker.

  21. Yes. I went back and back on my galleys to work out the "bad" words/phrases. I suspect I didn't find all of them, but I tried. It's amazing in a 70,000 word document how many times you can read through it and find something you missed!

  22. I STILL find things I wish I could change in my published novels ;) I think it's the bane of writers everywhere, hehe.

  23. Oh dear...a bit more to work on. (groan) But better now than have it jump out at agent or editor, right???

  24. Amelia, indeed :) And it does give you opportunities to improve potentially weak areas of the novel.

  25. Wow. Perfect timing on this advice. I'm in the middle of a revise, and see a number of these red flagged items in my manuscript!

  26. I'm glad you dusted them off. Now they're all put together in one place for me to happily click on and go read. :D I love reading your posts because of the examples. I more easily see the same mistakes in my own writing and then know how to fix them.

    Anyways, I remember you saying awhile ago, you had a Christmas zombie in your yard sometimes. Is he there this year, and what's his story?

  27. Hi Janice,
    I like how you defined the three red flags.
    Prepositions give me the most trouble. When I clicked on the link to investigate prepositions, it didn't work. Thought you might like to know.

  28. Ah yes, I recognize all of these! I have a long list of words I search crutch words, and definitely the way I speak. Yikes!

  29. Lin, awesome!This is why I like doing the golden oldies :) Some posts are always relevant.

    Jae, thanks, that's why I do the examples. I"m the same way.

    Yes I do, and his name is Cadaver Dan. I saw his photo online somewhere a few years ago, and I HAD to have him. He spent a while in the back yard (the hubby fought me on putting him in the front yard). Then I moved him up front for Halloween. Folks loved him. So the hubby relented, and said if we put a Santa hat on him, we could leave him until Christmas. We loved the idea so much, Dan got a New Year's hat. Then he got his own Facebook page. Now he lives in the front flowerbed by the door and "dresses up" for every holiday. I have an entire box full of his costumes.

    You'd think a yard zombie would freak people out, but everyone seems to love him. Although, the number of door to door solicitors HAS dropped since we put hm out there. Hmmm...

    Tracy, thanks, all fixed now. I guess I forgot to check the links on that one :) I've been trying to check old links, but there are only so many you can do before your eyes start to cross, hehe. Appreciate the heads up!

    Julie, same here. Those buggers do slip in, but it's nice to had a solid list of revisions we know we can get done right away. :) Always makes me feel like I've accomplished something, hehe.

  30. Hi Janice,
    I did the same thing on my Saturday post and I didn't realize it until a reader pointed it out. I was thankful. Glad to help.

  31. Hi Janice,
    Your blog came at a perfect time! So very helpful, thanks!

  32. Tracy, I wish there was a way to know when a link has gone bad. They should make an app for that!

    Jennifer, fantastic, glad I pulled it out of the archives then :)

  33. So many red flags, and I've sent 'em all. Thanks for a helpful post.

  34. Hi, I love your site and have learned tons. I'm getting comments about my two main POV characters that their voice is not different enough. DO you have an area of focus for something like this?
    Thanks for all you do in he lit world.

    1. Thanks! I've done multiple posts on character voices. Here's a link to those:

      If this doesn't help, let me know and I'll write something new :)