I noticed a verbal tic in my writing:

He looked surprised

He looked confused

He looked abashed

Sometimes twice in a row:

The prince looked abashed. “I- I thought I was being polite,” he mumbled.
“You were. You chose your words and your compliments well. I looked at you, and I saw a prince, heir of [divine ancestor]. What I did not see is you.” [Prince's Name] looked confused, so the captain continued to explain

I don't always want to get in the character's head and say he was surprised, but this is getting ridiculous. I don't seem to have a page go by without some character "looking" like he's having "insert-emotion-here". (Sometimes they also "seem" and "appear" - it's not that I don't vary the language.) I appear to be using those in dialogue, in conjunction with a verbal response, or instead of one. The facial expression is part of the dialogue, as it would be in real life. Only this isn't working in writing.

And no less important than the "verbal tic" feeling, it's a sort of filter word that creates unnecessary distance between the story and the reader.

How do I get rid of this tic? How do I clean my story of it?

  • 1
    However astonished, dismayed or squeezed I am, I'm following this question. Bugs me too. Oct 31, 2018 at 1:15

7 Answers 7


I agree with the sentiment, stop doubling down; or tripling down:

The prince looked abashed. “I- I thought I was being polite,” he mumbled.

You have three indicators of the same emotion in this line; abashed, a (presumably non-typical) verbal restart, and mumbling.

If this were my own writing (and it could be, I also have this problem) I'd ask myself, how else might we intensify this emotion? Shall he hide his face in his hands? Can we have him avert his eyes, too? While bowing his head, and crossing his arms in unconscious self-protection? Kick a little dust to the side with the toe of his boot? :-) (Actually not a bad exercise, if you pick only one.)

Technically speaking, "he mumbled" is not necessary, since it is clear he is speaking after "The prince looked abashed". These are single-indicator versions.

The prince looked abashed. "I thought I was being polite."

"I -- I thought I was being polite," the prince said.

"I thought I was being polite," he mumbled.

Now I admit each, when read, evokes a slightly different image of the prince and the sound of his statement. but that is okay, choose the one you like. The point is to avoid trying to intensify every image with 2, 3, or 6 indicators of emotion or mood, except perhaps in a particularly fraught emotional moment when intensity is warranted.

But your main question is how to not always use the same form of description; how somebody "looks".

For a POV character, I might just state it.

The prince was abashed. "I thought I was being polite."

Or, I get in his head,

I've made her think me a fool!
"I thought I was being polite," he said.

Or, a visual clue.

The prince closed his eyes for a moment, then met the eyes of the captain. "I thought I was being polite."

Trust your reader. You don't need an iron fist on the exact emotion. It slows down the reading to double and triple, without actually paying off in a brighter image. Your reader is working to imagine the scene, they already know the relationship between these speakers (which limits the number of ways the prince might feel here; e.g. it might rule out anger or disdain).

If you like that pace, use the extra words to actually paint a brighter image, instead of saying effectively the same thing two or three ways.

When dealing with non-POV characters, you can still filter images of how somebody looks through the POV's thoughts.

I've embarrassed her. God above! Shall I ever master conversation with a lady?

Not only does this clue the reader in to how his conversational partner looks, but we get a sense of how the prince feels and must look as well.

Instead of "the prince looked confused,"

Didn't see me? What riddle is this?
"I mean," the captain said, "You seem to be acting a part, and poorly. Did you believe your compliments, or cast dice to choose them from a list?"

So, with the "I mean," (or "What I intend to say," if the captain wants to be more formal addressing a prince) we know the captain has interpreted whatever expression went with the prince's thoughts, and is continuing and clarifying what he meant. We do have to attribute the dialogue to the captain, since he speaks two lines in a row, but we don't have to say "he continued," that is obvious from the fact that he is speaking again.

Without saying what the prince looked like, readers typically assume expressions will follow thoughts, and see what the captain sees, confusion. But being in the thoughts of the prince feels more intimate.

If you are writing in something besides 3rd Person Limited, you can still use an indirection instead of "telling" that the prince is confused.

The captain realized the prince was trying to riddle out his meaning. "In other words, prince, you seem to be acting a part, and poorly. Did you believe your compliments, or cast dice to choose them from a list?"

"[Character] looks [emotion]" is telling. It is appropriate for a screenplay, the actor will interpret this into "showing". And it isn't always inappropriate in a novel, but you are right, it can be overused.

The trick is often to not state it, but have the emotion cause something else, particularly thoughts or reactions in other characters. Let the reader infer the emotion. Because you can also overdue physical responses, averted eyes, frowns, and so on, and there is a limited menu of those before they become repetitive or comical.

But there is an unlimited number of thoughts and reactions that can be specific to the situation. So the prince can be confused thirty times in the book, but in each instance his confusion is about some paradox in his mind that is different and specific to each situation, so you never say he is confused. And you don't need some physical clue, him putting a hand to his temple every time he is confused.

Now I'm not banning either of those, I'm just saying they are unnecessary, because every confusion is different, and the question in his mind is different, so the reader gets that he is confused and why each time. And the same for every "angry", "bored", or other emotion.

Getting into his thoughts also has the advantage of letting him be non-expressive when you wish. His thoughts can still show the reader he is an emotional person, but he doesn't have to wear every emotion on his face for other characters in the story (one of the few advantages of a novel over a screenplay).


Noticing it is the first step.

Your line: “I- I thought I was being polite,” he mumbled. is enough.

You don't need to say the prince looked abashed. You are already conveying his uncertainty and concern over having done the wrong thing. He's stuttering a bit and mumbling. So leave out the abashed bit.

The "Prince looked confused" line is okay (or replace it with the prince saying "What?"). I'm more concerned with "the captain continued to explain." Just have him explain some more.

So you end up with:

“I- I thought I was being polite,” the prince mumbled.

“You were. You chose your words and your compliments well. I looked at you, and I saw a prince, heir of [divine ancestor]. What I did not see is you.”

[Prince's Name] looked confused.

"[More explanation.]"


For me, words like "surprised", "confused", and "abashed" are like shorthand, a quick way to summarize and perhaps when you are writing a first draft its easy to put these kinds of things into your prose because to do otherwise might break your train of thought or slow you down. Picking it up in the editing process seems like a fine way to change these (if you choose).

In each case, I think you can choose to either drop these expressions (allowing the reader to infer and providing snappier dialog), or replace them with something more descriptive. Perhaps there are other ways in which you can express these summarized emotions:


  • The prince took a step back.

  • The prince raised his eyebrow.


  • The prince looked around the room (in confusion)

  • The prince scratched his temple.


  • The prince went red.

  • The prince began to sweat.

  • The prince wiped the sweat from his face.

  • The prince hid his face in embarrassment.

Of course, if you are making such substitutions you will want to maintain your own voice, and maintain a consistent psychic distance throughout your text. In general, I'd say if you believe the words to be unnecessary (or not adding to the experience) they should be changed or removed.

  • 3
    This is what I usually do. Of course repeating those substitutions too often results in a sudden crowd of risen eyebrows, but it's the first step to show-don't-tell.
    – Liquid
    Oct 31, 2018 at 8:36
  • 5
    @Liquid agreed. You could easily find yourself with a seriously sweaty cast of characters, looking frantically around the room with red faces, walking backwards into the nearest object before scratching their temples in disbelief :) Oct 31, 2018 at 8:41
  • I like this because it is more specific: Frowning in confusion implies introspection, while scratching a temple in confusion implies self-consciousness. Those are subtle but powerful differences.
    – codeMonkey
    Feb 11, 2022 at 17:52

I agree with the other suggestions provided. Your problem, that you're catching, is that you are trying to show and tell the same sections simultaneously. You are telling us what the prince feels, while also showing us these things through the facial expressions and vocal tones. Ultimately it becomes redundant.

The good thing is that you're catching it already. If you want to, you can alternate between one and then the other, just don't continue using both simultaneously.

So in this exchange you might just say in there that he's mumbling or that his eyebrow raised (indicating confusion).

In the next scene, you may have a point where the prince is INTERNALLY feeling something and trying not to outwardly show it, so you go into his mind and let us know what's going on in there "He was confused by the captain's choice of words, but he was sick of appearing clueless, so he did his best to keep it suppressed."

This way, you can have a mix of both, that isn't redundant, so that your writing stays fresh. Otherwise, just stick to trying to SHOW and substitute the expressions for every "he was confused. He looked sternly. He said in surprise". If you really feel the need to stick to just one, this will be your most effective choice.


I remember some time ago I had a WIP in which characters sighed a lot. I noticed it because I read about another author overusing this verb, so I checked my own work in case it did the same. My solution was to consider what each sigh meant, and how characters could otherwise convey the same thing. I discovered about 30 instances, no two having quite the same meaning; and once I'd made my edits, no two sighs got the same updated description.

Your case is a little different, because you've cut straight to saying what the face means. If I were an alien pretending to be human, but I didn't know yet which faces meant what, and I were making up a lie about encountering someone and my knowing how they felt because of how they looked, I'd have to resort to saying what expressions meant instead of what they were. Since you're not an alien, try to do the latter.

He looked surprised, did he? How? How did his eyebrows move, with what implications for his brow lines; did his eyes or mouth change shape, and if so how; and did he walk (or sit down, or stand up), or use his hands, in a certain concomitant way? Lather rinse repeat with the other examples.

I like to visualise my characters, even if by using another fictional character my own narrative admits they don't look like. I don't know, use your favourite actor or whatever. But try to see how someone looks when they feel that way: describe that.


This looks like a problem with Filter Words. The term is credited to Janet Burroway in her book On Writing, and it's related to the problem of telling, not showing:

“As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers to step back and observe the observer — to look at [the character] rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

The filter in this concept (a bad thing) is usually a 3rd-person description of a character's sensory observation. It has the same "reader-distancing" problem as tell-not-show. Rather than allowing the reader to experience this sensory observation for themselves, it is "filtered" as a description of someone else's experience:

Mary heard the bell ring.The reader does not hear a bell, but is told that Mary heard it. Mary becomes a "filter" between the reader and the action.

The bell rang.The reader hears the bell. The reader is in the scene "un-filtered".

In the above example the filter word is heard. In the OP the filter word is looked, although it's not as obvious because the viewer who is looking at the prince's face is inferred. Online articles will have more thorough examples.

Writers are encouraged to remove these common verbs – the "filter words" that trigger the distancing effect. A partial list is: to see, to hear, to think, to touch, to wonder, to realize, to watch, to look, to seem, to feel (or feel like). In most cases these verbs (and the filtering character who has them) can be removed from the sentence, leaving a direct action that more viscerally involves the reader's own senses.

As with all writing tools, the idea is not to systematically remove all instances of these filter words, but to understand the unintended effect they are having on the reader.


Describe body language, gestures, facial expressions. This has the added benefit of creating ambience:

"The prince frowned/blushed/went pale", you get the picture, I'm sure.

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