What's the consensus on using phrases such as "he approached cautiously"?

Apr 19, 2020
I've been going down the show, don't tell rabbit hole lately, and am now left wondering whether saying things like "his face flooded in relief" are still considered telling. Am I being paranoid or is there a problem here?
I think you're being over cautious. Context is everything but ""he approached cautiously" would be fine. It's when writers tell you, the reader, everything that a character is feeling, doing, whatevering that it gets tiresome. Especially when authors (a la Rowling) do things like:

"Is this the way?" he asked inquiringly, pointing towards the door marked 'exit' which, as far as anyone could see, was the only way out of the room they were currently in.

"His face flooded in relief", looks odd though. Shouldn't it be "his face flooded with relief"
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I think there's nothing wrong with adverbs used sparingly. It's hard to say without context, but the phrase 'He approached cautiously' seems to be totally fine. It conveys something succinctly. Of course you can use context clues to show the reader that the character is being cautious, but this sort of showing can easily bog down action that would benefit from being clear and simple. As always, I guess, it depends.

As a rule it is good to limit use of adverbs where possible. But like all rules, it can be broken.

"His face flooded in relief" - Bit of an aside, but a face might flood WITH relief, I don't know if it can flood IN relief. Anyway, this sort of sentence is still telling, because you're not showing that the character is relieved, you're telling the reader they're relieved in a slightly more poetic way. There are better ways, often, to show emotions in a character.

Phrases like "anger boiled up inside him", "his heart was heavy with sadness" are doing some of the work of showing the emotion but they are still falling back on just saying the emotion.

EDIT: I see @JunkMonkey got here first.
"Show, don't tell" as a principle often makes sense but it seems to have been elevated to a dogma nowadays. A lot of the principles of good writing in currency today are quite parochial from a historical standpoint.
As others have suggested writing is a mix. Personally I think that, whilst a little advice from others can be helpful, it is not wise to let "rule book waggers" take over your writing wholesale. You will be gone as an individual writer.
"Define yourself or others will define you."
Treat things like "Show, don't tell" as options, tools if you like. The same with adverbs. A judicious adverb can be very useful, just don't let them make you lazy ;)
Certainly it's about context and balance.
But also consider audience.
I'm not a Harry Potter fan and junkmonky is right about those passages. But I'd also point out that Rowling is a children's author and kids often need thing spelled out very clearly (and even then, they miss the obvious)
So how much showing or telling you need will depend on your readers.
As for me, I try not to worry much about it in the drafting stage. Once a section is complete, it's easier to get a sense of the flow and feel out where things are bogging down. Beyond that, there's no hard rule, but you can always pick up a book comparable in audience to what you are working on and see how they do it
It comes down to context. If the story is close third person and this is the PoV character, then "He approached cautiously" is fine, but it might be better to describe why the character felt the need to be cautious. If this is a non-PoV character, then I would suggest describing how the character approached to make it appear cautious. Of course, in either case, if cautiousness is not important to the situation, consider omitting the word.

The second example, "his face flooded in relief," gives me more pause. The PoV character cannot view his (or her) own face. In this case, it would be better to describe the internal thoughts that led to the feeling of relief. For a non-PoV character, "flooded in relief" is an interpretation of what is actually observed. Describe how the character's demeanor has changed. If, in either case, the additional words do not feel justified, consider whether the "flooded in relief" is really important to the scene.

For me, one of the lessons of "show, don't tell" is in deciding what is important and what should be omitted. If something is important, engage the reader with it. If it is unimportant, perhaps it is unnecessary.
"Show, don't tell" as a principle often makes sense but it seems to have been elevated to a dogma nowadays.
I agree with La Panda du Mal. People who give writing advice can get carried away sometimes and turn something that is usually good advice into an iron-clad rule to be applied at all times. It's ridiculous how rigid some people can be about things like show-don't-tell, or cutting out all adverbs. (Adverbs exist for a reason. If they were really so awful, would they not have fallen out of use altogether?)

Speaking as an editor, when I am critiquing a manuscript and tell a writer "show, don't tell," I mean "right here, in this scene, on this page, in this paragraph, it would be better to show rather than to tell." Perhaps I might tell them, "you have a tendency to tell things that you would be better off showing." But it is never an outright proscription.

As others here have said, it depends on the context: How addicted is the writer to adverbs? Is this a point in the story where it's necessary to pick up the pace and move the action forward by stating things more succinctly, rather than describing a character's emotional state in detail (which, if carried to excess could result in the purplest of prose)? And so forth.

You could tie yourself into knots if you try to follow these "rules" too slavishly. There is only one genuine rule of good writing, "If it works, it works. If it doesn't work, find out why and fix it." The rules can be useful at the stage of finding out why something isn't working.
"Show, don't tell" as a principle often makes sense but it seems to have been elevated to a dogma nowadays. A lot of the principles of good writing in currency today are quite parochial from a historical standpoint.

"You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!" — Robot Devil, Futurama

Of course it's a trope. :p

With the "face flooded with relief" example, it seems like the type of sentence that shouldn't slow down to show what a relieved face looks like. I am a bit skeptical about a normal person's ability to read relief in someone's face, but I'm willing to take it on faith.
If a person is in a high emotional state it is often reflected in their face. They blush, they pale, they scowl, they grimace, etc. etc.

But what happens when a person experiences relief rather depends on how they were reacting to fear or tension before. If they were previously pale with worry or fear, their face might flood with color when their fear is relieved. If their face was tight, it might relax with relief.
"his face flooded with relief"
( 'flooded' to me feels more like blood pressure increase than relief)

I think I would skip the 'face' aspect completely and just go for being relieved as it is a whole body physiological thing. Maybe hand relaxes from some nervous fidgeting, breath slowly lets out, that sort of thing.
I have never heard of faces flooding with anything.
"He approached cautiously" is an excellent phrase in that every reader knows exactly what it means. It's all about context and pacing and everything else involved in the specific piece of writing, of course, but there's certainly nothing wrong with using it when appropriate.

"His face flooded," however, suggests the character's visage has been adversely affected by a severe weather event. But if that's the intent...
show, don't tell
I think of it as a "show vs tell" rabbit hole. in other words telling has a place, and a preferred manner of doing it.

All I ask is that you avoid words like "distractedly", "disgustedly" and my nemesis, "annoyedly". Guh. Annoyededly. Possibly the worst word in the world:)
My usual rule of thumb for adverbs is to use them if there is no previous context to suggest why the character might be doing it “ ‘ly “. For example at the start of a chapter or paragraph.

Usually you can ditch an adverb if you’re using it mid-text because the reader can infer it the ‘ly by you writing it as Theresa suggests; showing a cautious response/action.

However, there’s too much naysaying about adverbs as if they’re some kind of dreadful curse. Often it’s better to use one than trip over ourselves trying to not do so, and thus bloating word count.

(I’m really not keen on the face flooding. It seems a tad overwritten and inaccurate).
I agree that it depends a lot on the circumstances. I think you've got to avoid things like "I'll kill you!" he exclaimed angrily. The "angrily" bit of it should be apparent from the circumstances, and probably the exclaiming.

As for "he approached cautiously", that looks fine to me. I think it depends on how you want to tell the story: if this is the end of a long scene where one character is creeping up on another, you might want to put in more details and describe the emotions of the person doing the creeping (if realistic to do so). But if someone's just walking along, that seems completely reasonable.

"His face flooded in relief" (surely it should be "with" relief?) feels clunky to me. I think it does "tell" a little, but it's not inherently wrong. I do think that the idea could be expressed a bit better, though. Something like: He grinned and blew out, then ran a hand over his hair. "I'm glad to hear it!" he replied would work better for me.
One reference that I have found useful in describing facial expressions is a diagram in post #12 of Character ‘interiority’ and clichéd physical reactions

Rather than saying "with [some emotion]," I try to pull a couple of characteristics from this chart to describe a facial expression. I feel this provides observable characteristics that the reader can use to infer the desired emotion and not have the narration describe what the target character is actually feeling.
Describing how you approach something sounds perfectly acceptable to me. You could say that 'he crept up', but that's really not the same. As has been mentioned above 'show don't tell' can be effective but only when used effectively.

A face 'flooding with relief' doesn't make sense, but neither does 'his jaw hit the floor' as an expression of surprise. But it doesn't have to make sense as long as the reader understands what you mean. Having said that, there are probably better expressions that could be used. *Edit* 'breathed a sigh of relief' maybe?
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