I am trying to show the confusion my character feels (first person narrative) but am not sure what techniques to use. I have tried to achieve this using questions that arose through my character's confusion, but I feel like that is not enough. Could someone tell me the techniques they use to show a character's confusion in the first person narrative?


He told me he currently worked at NASA. Huh? Various thoughts floated in my head. But he used to hate science!

That is about it. I would like the reader to feel a greater sense of confusion my character feels but I am not sure how to convey it.


7 Answers 7


Confusion may be a slightly different experience for different characters, depending on their personality or the situation -- some may experience confusion as a kind of blankness, a sudden stop of thoughts, while others may experience it as a rush of thoughts that contradict each other. Either way, you can communicate confusion by showing what the confused character is experiencing.

For example, for a situation with the nonplussed kind of confusion:

He told me he currently worked at NASA. I stopped with my drink lifted halfway to my mouth, unable to respond. He must have seen the confusion in my face because he laughed saying, "No, I suppose I never showed much interest in that sort of thing back in school, did I?"

The rushing thoughts kind of confusion might be something like this:

He told me he currently worked at NASA. How could that be? He hated science in school! I suppose people do change and it had been several years since our school days, but looking at Steve I just couldn't see it. He hadn't just hated science, he was bad at it, too. Even worse than I was, and I had barely made it through that class. Can people go through that big of a change? No, this had to be a joke. But he didn't look like he was joking. Maybe it was some kind of non-sciencey role, like scanning the ID badges of people going in and out or something? That seemed more likely. Yes, probably he was some kind of assistant or security guard or something. But that didn't look like the kind of suit jacket an assistant could afford, and the watch on his wrist screamed six-figure salary. Maybe I hadn't known Steve as well as I thought I did back then.


I think confusion takes time to portray, and I would do this in dialogue; a kind of argument.

He told me he worked at NASA. NASA. He must be kidding.

I said, "What? You hated science! Math, biology, computers ... everything, you were the worst student in high school!"

"What can I say? They didn't teach game animation in high school."

"So you do game animations at NASA? It isn't science, I guess."

"No, I thought I wanted to learn animation, and I discovered simulations, and had to learn physics for it. With a goal, I was an A student for applied physics. Now I do realistic simulations of hostile environments at NASA, and lives depend on it. I'm not a kid anymore, Frank."

It made him a different person, really, and I wasn't sure what to say to this stranger. I held out my hand. "Nice to finally meet you, Dave. I did not know that is who you were."

Dave laughed, and shook my hand. "Neither did I, Frank."



When people are confused they generally become unsure and more prone towards hesitating. Show this in your character's body language and speech patterns. They will pause more frequently and shift position more. Think about how you know that a person you are talking to in real life is confused, and seek to emulate that.

They will also focus on the things that confused then. Looking at your sample, I would write it as follows:

He told me he currently worked at NASA. NASA? I frowned. But he used to hate science!

By replacing 'huh' with 'NASA' you identify the source of your character's confusion immediately. Replacing the metaphoric description of thoughts with a physical description conveys the same idea while also giving the reader information about what the scene actually looks like and how this character expresses their confusion. The more information you can convey with the same sentences, the better.


Usually if you're confused, you would most likely do the following:

  • Act weird (He told me he currently worked at NASA. "Huh? Oh y-yeah. T-that's nice. H-how is the um.. The job?)

  • Look confused (Describe the eyes, his/her look)

  • Have thoughts rushing through their head (What? But .... And .... And .... So ....)

  • Talk about their confusion ("Wait what?")

Hope it helps!


In addition to the good answers given so far, confusion can manifest itself literally as confusing the unexpected information with the more familiar.

For example:

He told me he currently worked for the NASA.

I smiled. "Yes, the NSA, that fits him well. He loved spy stories as far back as I knew him and he is a convincing talker. Could have become a good con m..."

"Not NSA, N-A-S-A", he interruped me, spelling out every letter.


When I need to do this, it's portraying a state of confusion and not just the character being confused by some fact or short lived situation. (I'm not sure from the post which is the goal). That's rather easily done in stream of consciousness sort of writing as the character's thoughts jump around like crazy and emotions flare. "I needed to get dog food and why am I suddenly thinking about the gold fish I had in third grade? Now I'm angry--enraged by memories I couldn't banish and wasn't there something I was supposed to be doing and..." etc.

From the outside perspective actions stop making sense and mistakes are made. "Hey dude, you just ran a red light. WTH man?"


I do not know all the answers and I am learning the ropes here with you. Here are my thoughts.

Showing is anything that makes the reader feel what you are saying.

  1. Sometimes this is achieved through actions, because reading "I caught my breath" or "I gasped for air" is more relatable as a specific experience than "I was tired".

  2. Sometimes it is achieved through similes and metaphors. "The blanket lay across my horse's back looking like it had up and died. It had no lift to it, even its fibers seemed to untwine as I watched. I felt like that blanket. So tired that I couldn't move, so tired that even my thoughts unravelled, and I wished the horse could carry me, instead of the blanket."

  3. Sometimes it is achieved through description. I was tired from the lifting. I'd been lifting all day - twenty pound bags of seed in the morning, and buckets of water from the river to the camp in the evening. The thirty mile hike through the mountains didn't help, and I longed for the day to end but there was still dinner to make.

  4. Sometimes it is achieved through dialog with an observer. He asked me, "Are you feeling OK? Those dark circles under your eyes get worse every day. Do you want some coffee?".

-- What it isn't, is "I was tired."

But I look forward to others' feedback here too.

  • "I caught my breath" or "I gasped for air" sounds more like exhausted than tired.
    – celtschk
    Commented May 12, 2018 at 12:26

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