how do I use great vocab in my story and show rather than tell? Any tips?

The best thing you can do is to expand your adverbs. There’s a reason why so many “big name” authors hate adverbs. Take a look:

He sat sadly in the corner.

Sounds descriptive, right?

But how do you describe “sadly”?

And that’s where the fun begins. You might think describing “sadly” is just to give yourself an idea of what the word means to you, but think about what it means to your reader.

Does your reader think that sitting sadly is the same way you think it is?

Why not tell us?

He sat in the corner, his arms wrapped around his knees as he sighed to himself every few minutes.

What about this way?

He curled up in the corner, placing his hands on the crown of his head with his fingers interlaced. He chewed on his lip as a tear rolled down his cheek.

Or this one?

He leaned his head against the wall and sank to the floor, resting his cheek against the comforting corner. The carpet felt scratchy, grounding him in the thought that everything really was quite terrible.

This isn’t to say that every single adverb should be trashed (though there are MANY authors who would say that they should), nor does it mean that every single action has to be expanded from four words to fifty words.

What it does mean is that “sadly” (and any other such “-ly” word) just doesn’t tell the reader that much. If the emotion isn’t terribly important – perhaps the person sitting in the corner is a tertiary character and is just being observed – then you don’t need to expand upon it.

But if your main character is the one sitting in the corner, why would you skimp on the details?

If it’s important for your character to sit in the corner in a sad fashion, then you need to show your reader why it matters.

And if it’s not important for your character to sit in the corner in their sadness, then why in the world are you including it in your story?

Let your writing breathe a little. What does “sadly” look like to you? Describe that instead.

If you’re not sure where to start (because it can be intimidating to try this for the first time), then try going to a thesaurus (such as or – gasp – a real, physical copy of a thesaurus) for some help. suggests these options:

unhappily, wistfully, cheerlessly, dejectedly, dismally, dolefully, gloomily, grievously, joylessly, morosely, sorrowfully

You might notice that all of those are “-ly” words and are thus adverbs. (Not all adverbs are “-ly” words, but all “-ly” words are adverbs. Except for “sparkly,” I guess.)

However, all of those words are still more descriptive than “sadly.” So if you don’t want to expand on it too much, you can try using a thesaurus for a more powerful option.

This doesn’t mean you should change every “plain” word with one from a thesaurus! It means that it helps to vary your vocabulary some.

“Joylessly,” despite basically being the same as “sadly,” tells me a lot more than “sadly.” I see a character that has gloom in their eyes, that has no life left in them. I see a character that has given up.

Try defining these adverbs for yourself like I just did. Imagine a character doing something “wistfully” and then describe what that would look like to someone seeing this character for the first time doing this thing wistfully.

Let’s look at “dejectedly.” It’s a pretty solid word, but what can we do with it? How would someone take a plate dejectedly to a sink?

She lifted the plate with a heavy heart. It was… gulp… time to wash the dishes. A sigh escaped from her lips. It wasn’t even her turn this time. She tilted the plate, letting a piece of pizza crust roll from the edge to the middle. How exciting. The stark white plates were covered in splotches of red sauce and remnants of overcooked cheese. They’d been on the table for an hour now. Her feet trudged toward the sink, her eyes focusing on nothing in particular. Someone who didn’t know her would almost say she was only doing the dishes in order to keep herself from being put into a dungeon. The plate clattered into the sink, making the chrome walls of the sink reverberate as she looked dully into her distorted reflection. She let another sigh loose without realizing it. She turned back to the table. There were still three more. Her eyes closed in defeat. One day, robots would do such menial chores for her, but for now, her knees knocked as she found herself at the table again, reaching for plate #2 with trembling fingers.

See what I mean? Vocabulary is part of pacing. If you don’t want to focus on how upset she is about washing the dishes, then you can toss a sentence in that says she dejectedly did the dishes and then describe what she did afterward. If you want to show the utter drudgery of being a teenager who has to do chores, then you can try something like that paragraph above.

Some of the sentences are long, and some of them are short. Some words are simple, like “escaped,” while others are complicated, like “reverberate.”

The best thing you can do is vary your sentence length, choose what needs to be expanded upon, and determine what words describe things how you want them to be described.

If the plates only have a little bit of stuff on them, then “covered in splotches of red sauce and remnants of overcooked cheese” isn’t the type of phrasing that suits the reality of the plates.

Don’t exaggerate unless that’s your narration style. Don’t tell me that it took “forever” to wash the dishes, when it only took 10 minutes. You can say that it FELT like forever for her. If you’re writing in first-person perspective, then you can exaggerate and underestimate and all those other things that normal humans will think/feel/do.

Last bit of advice: when I read a book and find a word that I don’t know the meaning of, I look it up. I can’t tell you how much I used our dictionary when I was little. If I was going to read a book, I almost always went ahead and grabbed the dictionary before I got started. I would read until I found a word I didn’t understand and then check for context clues (guessing the meaning through understanding the words around it). Whether the context clues told me what it meant or not, I’d look it up to make sure. I’m serious.

Read a lot of books, and don’t be afraid to look words up. That’s one of the best things you can do.

I have several posts about vocabulary, and you can find them at the following link:

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