Monday, January 12, 2015

Phrases to Avoid: "Alarmed By"

If you’ve been writing stories for more than twenty-four hours, odds are good that you’ve come across the phrase “show, don’t tell.” What this advice essentially means is that action is more interesting than description.

For example, we could write that “Jane was angry.” This is simple and direct, but it is also the sort of thing that is more engaging to see than to be told. Instead of just telling our audience that Jane is angry, we could write this: “Jane punched the wall, red-faced and growling through her teeth.” This conveys Jane’s emotions more powerfully than a simple statement of anger.

Another advantage to showing is that it is more subtle than telling. You have to trust your audience to pick up on the things that you are not directly stating. This makes it more difficult to write, but also makes it more engaging to read.

“Show, don’t tell,” is the reason that alarmed by is a phrase that should usually be avoided. Here’s an example of how I generally see this phrase used:

     Gizem felt her way along the corridor. She kept one hand on her dagger while the other traced the rough stone of the wall. There was a dim light coming from up ahead.
     When she came around the corner, she found a narrow window. Moonlight poured through the opening, illuminating the still form of Hunsu. Blood covered his face and clothing and pooled on the gray wooden floorboards beneath him.
     Alarmed by the sight, Gizem scrambled to Hunsu’s side.

Do you see the problem? You don’t need to be told that Gizem was “alarmed by the sight” of Hunsu lying in a pool of blood, do you? It’s obvious. You don’t even need to know who the characters are for this to be clear.  In fact, when you think about it, it’s almost insulting that the writer thought you wouldn’t already know that was clear.

The entire phrase “alarmed by the sight” could easily be removed without harming the passage. If you feel it is necessary, you can leave the word alarmed:

     Alarmed, Gizem scrambled to Hunsu’s side.

But even that could probably be shown instead of told:

     With a nearly silent gasp, Gizen scrambled to Hunsu’s side, almost tripping on a loose floorboard in her haste.

Now, you don’t have to show all of that. Simply stating that Gizen is alarmed is much more economical, and sometimes that will be more important than the emotional effect of showing instead of telling. The problem with the phrase alarmed by, however, is that it forces you to re-state something that you’ve already shown. In our example above, we’d just barely seen Hunsu lying in a pool of blood. We can infer why Gizen is alarmed without being directly told. 

Imagine writing this iconic scene: "Alarmed by the sight of the pursuing T-Rex in the mirror, Muldoon floored it." Do you really think your audience wouldn't figure out why Muldoon was alarmed on their own?
There is almost no scenario where you would use alarmed by without already having shown the alarming scene or event. So trust your audience to put two and two together, and leave the phrase out.

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