Word Choice: The last bits…


I’ve gone over a lot in the last few weeks. Here’s the final matter on word choices, including “show don’t tell”, cliche’s, similes, metaphors, motifs, and more.

Show Don’t Tell

We’ve all heard this phrase, but exactly what does it mean? Basically, it means showing the reader what a character is feeling through the character’s actions rather than telling the reader how he or she feels. For example: Natalie shredded Dean’s letter without even opening it. How dare he! She picked up the nearest pillow and slammed it against the sofa. He’d sat there in that spot and lied to her about his affair. She glanced around the room, needing something, but not sure what. Then she spied the letter opener on the coffee table. Beyond coherent thought, she drove the point into the pillow. The pillow bled white stuffing over the sofa.

Think how much more effective this paragraph is than a sentence like: “Natalie was angry.” Even if you use a synonym for angry, it is still a weak sentence. By showing us her actions, we know how she is feeling. We are drawn into her world, into her actions. Telling us keeps us on the outside, uninvolved with the emotions.

Beware, though, of using too much showing. Don’t become so enamored of showing the reader what is happening that you turn the passage into a long narrative. Break up the narrative with dialogue – poor Natalie can be screaming invectives at the TV or send her cat into hiding with her tirade. The dialogue breaks up the narrative, but keeps us in the emotional action.

A type of “show don’t tell” is called “Beats.” These are little bits of action thrown into a scene usually in the form of gestures that help a reader see the action and also reveal something about the character. “He wiped his hands on his pants, leaving greasy streaks behind.” Be careful when using beats as they can slow the action down. Fewer beats increase the tension and pace, more slows it down. Try to find a balance that keeps the scene moving without bogging the reader down in unnecessary information. It’s not necessary to show every move a character makes. When too many are used, your writing can look more like you are trying to put on a play and telling the actors what their moves should be.


You should avoid cliché’s like the plague. All right, that’s an old one – but it’s valid. Cliché’s are those little phrases that are so old and worn that everybody knows them and nobody wants to see them.

Cute as a button

Gentle as a lamb

Dumb as a doornail

Weak as a kitten

Quiet as the grave

There are hundreds of others. Do a search on “as a” and you’ll probably see a cliché surrounding it. Try to rewrite using stronger verbs or adjectives. “Drunk as a skunk” could become “reeled across the room and smelled worse than a lazy jock’s locker.” Get out your red pen and go after those weak cliché’s. Your readers will thank you.

Similes, Metaphors, motifs, symbols

A simile is a figure of speech where two very different things are compared to each other, usually denoted by the word “as.” For instance: She had a heart as big as Texas.

A metaphor is similar in that it compares two things, but utilizing the word “like”: He was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. These can both be used effectively to describe character, setting or other parts of the story, but be careful not to overuse them. A few sprinkled judiciously throughout the story can enhance. Too many will bog the story down.

A motif is something that recurs through the story. I wrote a little on this earlier. It can be a word, an object, a setting, or character that has particular meaning to the story.

Finally, there are symbols. A symbol is similar to a motif, but may occur only once in the story. For instance, in “Planet of the Apes”, the final scenes have two symbols – the talking doll and the Statue of Liberty. Both powerful symbols of humanity broken.

Logic Order

When you have your characters doing things, they should proceed in a logical order. Your heroine can’t have a baby, then get pregnant. March does not follow April and 10 a.m. does not follow 8 p.m. – unless you’re talking about the next day – which should be clear to the reader. Consider the following:

She jumped out of the way, realizing the car was going to hit her.

This is awkward because our heroine is realizing that something is going to happen after she has already reacted. Unless you’re writing a paranormal story in which she can tell the future, you don’t react to something before it has happened. A better way to write this is:

Realizing the car was going to hit her, she jumped out of the way.

Or: She realized the car was going to hit her and jumped out of the way.

You should also look for and rewrite adverbial phrases. These may or may not be physically possible, but they make for weak prose.

Weak: After setting his coffee on the top of the car, he keyed open the lock.

Better: He set his coffee on the car roof and unlocked the door.

Go through your story and double check sentences for logical progression and adverbial phrases. Rewrite those that seem weak or illogical.

While we’re talking about logic, think about your story in general. Have you checked your story for consistency? Does A follow B follow C? Is your time line correct? Have events occurred when and where they should?

I edited a manuscript some years ago where a character was lighting a match to see where he was. It was 8 p.m. and full dark. It wouldn’t have been a problem if it had been December and in the north, but this story took place in late June in northern Texas. Oops – it’s still light outside, not full dark.

Watch your facts. Don’t have the hero pulling down a zipper before the 1900’s and, please, don’t have him eating Baked Alaska before Alaska has been discovered. If your heroine has green eyes at the beginning of the story, she’d better not change them to blue or brown ones by the end.

In the same vein, keep a timeline of your story. If the story starts on Monday morning and they do enough action to get through two nights, don’t have them wake up on Tuesday morning when it should be Wednesday. Check your timelines, facts and attributes. Your readers will – and they’ll let you know if you goofed.

Style Questions:

  1. Have you checked for redundancies, repetitions, homonyms and other word choice issues?
  2. Have you used all the senses?
  3. Is the writing more active than passive?
  4. Have you over-used modifiers?
  5. Have you checked for malapropisms and Tom Swifties?
  6. Have you used the proper language for the time period and geographic area in your book?
  7. Have you used the correct customs and manners for the time period and area?
  8. Is your history correct? Don’t invent or discover something before it’s been done in reality and don’t misplace actual historical people or places.
  9. Have you check the housing, transportation, food, dress, etc. for the time period?
  10. Have you kept a time line so your scenes follow a logical path?
  11. Have you checked for consistencies not only in time line, but also with characterizations?
  12. Have you used or overused similes and metaphors?
  13. If you used a motif, did you use the same one consistently throughout the story?
  14. If using a symbol, is the meaning of it clear?

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