Monday, July 12, 2021

Do or Do Not. There is No Try: Clarifying What Your Characters Do

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The word “try” can send all the wrong signals to your reader.

Characters “try to” do a lot of things in stories. They try to get up, they try to hide, they try to hold back tears. But what the writer really means, is the character got up, they hid behind the couch and were found anyway, or they blinked back tears welling in their eyes.

The “try” isn’t describing the action, it’s describing the motive, which is another form of telling, not showing. The trying weakens the writing, and isn’t putting enough of what’s actually happening on the page for readers to understand the action.

Not that “trying to” act is a bad thing. If the motive is more important than the action, “trying” works just fine and conveys what the author wants readers to know. But more often than not, “trying” is unclear, and readers are left wondering if the character accomplished what they tried to do or not.

Strengthen your writing by stating exactly what your character is doing—not “trying to” do.

You don’t need to cut every instance of “tried” from your manuscript, but consider each one and decide if your character really is trying, or are they doing.

For example:
He tried to stand, grabbing the chair and dragging himself upright.
“Tried to” here suggests failure. He “tried to” stand, but didn’t. But at the end of this sentence, the guy is standing. He didn't try, he did. If we cut the “tried to” we get:
He grabbed the chair and dragged himself upright.
This describes the action, and it uses stronger verbs and a more active voice. If you’re trimming down a novel, that’s also four words gone, so it’s a handy tool for reducing your word count.

Let’s look at another:
They tried to sneak into the boss’s office.
Did they succeed or not? It’s unclear, and you can almost hear the "but they got caught" at the end of it. The “tried to” implies that they failed. So what actually happened?

Are they lingering outside the door, glancing down the hallway, licking their lips and rubbing their sweaty palms on their pants? Did they reach for the door and someone asks what they’re doing?

Or did they just look around, open the door, and enter? Was there no “trying” at all? If so, the “try” isn’t necessary, and robs you of a fun little opportunity to create tension.

Here’s one writers use all the time:
She tried to smile.
What does the “tried to” mean here? It's ambiguous, because we only know the intent, not the actual outcome of this action. Is she standing there with a weird look on her face? Is she not smiling at all?

Instead, we might write:
  • She tried to smile, but her lips stayed flat.
  • She flashed a fake grin that wasn’t fooling anybody.
  • She ought to smile.
  • The corners of her mouth twitched. Hey, she tried.
  • Nothing would make her smile today.
It’s a small line, and no one is going to cast your novel across the room in disgust if you write it, but it’s yet another an opportunity for stronger writing. And it doesn’t take a lot of missed opportunities to turn a novel from good to meh. Or push a good novel to great.

The intent of the sentence is key when deciding if “tried to” works or not.

If the emotion associated with “trying” is more important, “trying to” can work. Here’s an example from my own novel, The Shifter:
I tried not to squirm, tried not to think about the soldier's hands.
Is she squirming or not? You can't tell. She’s obviously thinking about the soldier's hands since she mentioned them but she could be squirming, or standing still, or twitching a little. 

My intent was to indicate the personal struggle for my protagonist, Nya. Whether or not she did squirm or think isn’t as important as her intent to ignore what the solider is doing (and for the record, he’s just searching her). Her emotional response is what I wanted to convey. I wanted to suggest failure, but also discomfort and fear. “I tried not to squirm as the solider searched me” doesn’t have the same emotional resonance that “I tried not to squirm, tried not to think about the soldier's hands” does.

(Here’s more with Do You Get My Meaning? Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing)

Check your writing for weak “tried to” phrases. Ask:

Is the person doing what they're “trying to” do or not? If there’s no “trying” at all, just show the action.

Is the intent to show the struggle or the failure? If the emotional response is more important, make sure that comes through in the writing. Odds are the internal thoughts or narrative connected to the “tried to” will support this (as in my squiring example).

Are you showing an action or a motivation? If it’s the intent to act, you could be telling.

What is the character actually doing? If fleshing out the action makes it more interesting, showing what the character does will likely improve the writing.

Are you using it to describe action or as a colloquialism? We use plenty of words that are meant to be conversational, and “tried” is one of them. “She was trying to be nice, but come on” works because it’s not description, it’s an internal thought.

Rethinking “tried” is just one more way you can tighten your prose. You'll say what you actually mean instead of using a vague description that could be read a few different ways. It'll also help pinpoint potentially told areas and give you opportunities to improve the writing.

It was good advice for Luke Skywalker, and it's good advice for writers.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine places in your manuscript where you used “tried to.” Consider the intent behind the “trying,” and revise any weak “tried to” phrases.

How do you feel about tried? Are you using it to show a struggle or failure, or as a setup to the actual action?

*Originally published March 2012. Last updated July 2021.
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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I don't use tried that much. I do have my characters try and fail. I think they have to. But I try (ha!) to show it, not tell it. I'll have to watch out for unclear trying of my characters though.

  2. I didn't think I used tried much, but now I'm trying to remember... and failing! I'll have to watch for this - excellent advice!

  3. I'm not sure I use tried much, but now it's been brought to my attention, I will definitely "try" not too, or at least consider it a lot more.

  4. This is something that sneaks through in my first draft from time to time, but before letting my writer's group "have at it," I get rid of every instance because they'll nail me for sure! (I love my writer's group.)

  5. The questions you've given for any writer to ask him/herself seems obvious, but often forgotten. Thank you for listing them!

  6. I will love you forever for using "try to" instead of the infuriating and incorrect "try and" which I see everywhere.

    1. Sarah, I totally agree. The 'and' implies success, in which case, try is not needed.

  7. Okay, I'm really not a Star Wars hater, but let's just say Yoda and I don't have the best history in the philosophy department...That line in particular certainly doesn't help.

    Seriously though, I do have problems with this regard.

    On the one hand, while there some things we do that are either done or not done, like walking the dog, or making the bed, or writing your WIP opposed to a new blog entry, etc.

    There are still some things I haven't concretely done, but doesn't mean I'm putting it off, for example-

    I haven't hooked agents with my last novel. That doesn't mean all the sleepless nights and tear-filled food binges crafting better query letters was wasted.

    I did something besides feel sorry for myself. But I did SOMETHING that will help me in the long run, right?

    So yeah, as a writer trying to break into publishing, I struggle with this logic, but I'd like to think I'm not a walking contradiction, because I'm making the effort, even if I can yet say I have an agent, or I published a book, or that I can edit or rewrite a book in less than a year.

    I'm still WORKING towards those things. In my opinion that's better than just submitting to doubt which I'm guilty of sometimes.

    If I'm reading this wrong, I apologize, but as I said, Yoda and I have a touchy history.

  8. Natalie, hehe, sounds good!

    Charmaine, I found a few myself. It's probably not a huge issue for most people, but they do slip in there.

    Rebecca, can always do a search and see if you use it or not. :)

    Susan, ooo good group. I catch myself doing it in first drafts all the time. It just rolls off the fingers.

    SA Larsen, most welcome! It never hurts to brush up on what we "know" we know.

    Lin, add it to the first draft checklist :)

    Sarah, glad you mentioned that! That's one to watch out for for sure.

    Chicory, so many little snags are :)

    Taurean, I never said it was absolute, just that it's a word that often doesn't say what we want it to say. If you're trying to get published, that shows a struggle/pursuit, and is perfectly valid use of it. But if you use tried to when it's clear they either did or didn't, it can cut to tighten the prose.

  9. Great post. I'll add that to my first draft revision checklist

  10. Okay, that's what I thought. Sorry I got carried away. That phrase is one of my "Hulk Triggers" so I sometimes forget myself whenever I read it.

  11. Mmmm .... I didn't think I had a problem with this, until I did a word search on my latest WIP!
    Thanks for your wonderful posts, Janice. They are always so relevant and you have such a knack for explaining things. :)

  12. I've used it more often than not, so, yeah, have to watch this one. Usually catch in edit stage.

  13. Pete, thanks! It's on mine now, too.

    Taurean, no worries. I was speaking purely from the usage in a novel standpoint, not a judgement call :)

    JT Webster, they sneak in there, don't they? And thanks!

    Traci, it's a good one to put on those "things to double check" lists.

  14. This is interesting. I've never thought about this.

  15. I love seeing this issue addressed. Yes, tried to sneaks into a lot of manuscripts. I'm with you--when the character succeeds, the phrasing is almost always stronger without tried. If try is a legitimate action for your characters, write try to rather than try and.

    Phrases that need work---He wanted to try and swim the ocean; she said he'd better try and find a more expensive ring; I knew I had to try and race home before the storm.

    This is a great tip for writers. Thanks for sharing it.

  16. Beth, they're good red flag phrases as well. They often show up in scenes where we're not 100% sure what's going on, and ones that could use a little tweaking.

  17. I try not to have my characters (oh dear! There it is again.) try to do things. Dong a search is a good idea.
    Another vague thing which I find many authors use is ' seemed'. The book I'm reading at the moment has a lot of things that seem to happen.

    1. Hehe. Seemed is a tough one. It's a judgement word, so it's very helpful to show POV, but it's also used poorly the same as try. I did a post on that as well, so I'll have to dust that one off, too :)