Words – “Appeared,” “Seemed,” and “Looked” – How to Apply/Not Apply Them in Fiction Writing

words have power

I’m still plowing through the book by Janice Hardy called Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), and this is my second blog post on the subject of show, don’t tell. My previous post on this consisted of information on a few red flag tell words.

This post is centered on three words: Appeared, Seemed, and Looked. And knowing how to use them properly.

We writers use appeared in a few ways.  If you’re using it to describe something or someone showing up or materializing in front of the character, this is fine and is not one of the descriptions being analyzed by Hardy.  It’s when you are using it in the same manner as you would for Seemed that is under the microscope.  Appeared “is a judgment word that suggests the assumption could be incorrect” (Hardy).

Here’s an example Hardy uses:

  • Bob appeared strong, with broad shoulders and biceps the size of canned hams (Hardy).

So, what is point-of-view character saying here? Using the word appeared implies the point-of-view character is making an assumption. But a man with “broad shoulders and biceps the size of canned hams” does describe one who is strong. This means it’s unlikely to be an assumption. Therefore, we writers wouldn’t want to use appeared in that instance (Hardy).

Here’s another example of appeared. See what you think of this one:

  • He appeared to be the charter pilot, with a jaunty cap and leather bomber jacket (Hardy).

This tells the reader the point-of-view character isn’t sure if the person is truly a charter pilot but is assuming so because of his clothing. But a person who is not a pilot could dress in a bomber jacket and jaunty cap. The point-of-view character thinks the person might be a pilot (Hardy). Therefore, in this case, because of the uncertainty, the use of appeared works.

This works nearly the same with the word Seemed. Here’s an example from the book:

  • Bob seemed happy, laughing and joking with all the kids (Hardy).

What makes the point-of-view character say “seemed”? If Bob is “laughing and joking,” then why would the point-of-view character question if Bob is happy? It’s not accurate and misleads the reader. It also makes you question the point-of-view character’s reasoning for saying this (Hardy).

Here’s another sentence Hardy uses as a comparison:

  • Bob seemed happy, but his smile never waved.

Here the point-of-view character questions Bob’s happiness because he/she notices his smile “never waved,” which implies it’s not a real smile, but a feigned one. Therefore, using “seemed” in that sentence works (Hardy).

Lastly, let’s study the word Looked. There are two ways in which to use this word. One is to describe how a character appears. The second way is what the character does (Hardy).

Here’s the first example:

  • Jane looked scared hiding behind the car, hands gripping the shotgun (Hardy).

So, in this sentence, the description by the point-of-view character could be either making an assumption, or how he/she sees Jane. Hardy asks, “Does this sentence mean the woman hiding behind the car looks scared when she’s really not, or is there a scared woman?” (Hardy) It’s not clear.

Here’s another sentence Hardy uses as a comparison:

  • Jane cowered behind the car, hands gripping the shotgun (Hardy).

This sentence clarifies the confusion. Using the word “cowered,” it shows Jane is scared. No need to assume Jane may be scared by using “looked” (Hardy).

Here’s the last example:

  • He looked like the kind of guy who would sell out his own mother for a cold beer (Hardy).

It is clear the point-of-view character is stating his/her opinion. This is evident in the point-of-view character’s voice. It shows opinion rather than detached description (Hardy).

What Hardy has helped me to understand as a revert writer in the past four years is that word usage is crucial in producing our works of fiction. And these clearly-understood examples have helped me so much.

Some of my readers who are experienced writers probably recognized and were able to find the problems easily, but for newer writers, I’m hoping this is helpful to you.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Works cited
Hardy, Janice. Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It). Fiction University Press, 2016.

 

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