The Problem with “Likely” and “Probably”

Today I want to talk about a common issue with “likely” and “probably”, as well as reasons you should use them sparingly and selectively in your narrative writing.

So what’s the problem?

Often, “likely” and “probably” are used to explain something to the reader that’s technically outside the main character’s knowledge.

Example: He scowled at me, probably upset that I had stolen the last piece of cake.

In a minor way, this is a point-of-view (POV) violation. You’re very briefly shifting the focus into the perspective of someone who’s not the POV character, then back again.

If you’re writing in a deeper POV, like first-person or limited third-person, it’s ideal to keep your reader in a single character’s head per scene. You really want them to sink into that person’s mind. But even if you’re writing from a more omniscient third-person perspective, it’s usually a good idea to follow only one character’s viewpoint within a single sentence or paragraph.

(As with anything, there are exceptions, but they can be tricky to pull off effectively.)

This issue is woven in with “show don’t tell”. Yes, yes, that saying has its own exceptions as well, but in the case of “probably” and “likely”, it’s useful. Don’t tell the reader what someone outside the POV is feeling or thinking. Show it in ways that don’t include the main character making assumptions. Let your readers make those assumptions instead.

Better example: His eyes darted to the scant crumbs left on my plate, and he scowled.

Try this exercise:

  • Run a search for “likely” and/or “probably” in your novel.
  • Pick out an instance (in the narrative, not in dialogue) and ask: Are you using it as an easy way to jump outside your main character’s head or provide information the main character doesn’t know?
  • If so, brainstorm other ways to convey the same thing through dialogue or action, and try rewriting that sentence in a way that doesn’t involve assumptions.

Trust your readers. Let them connect the dots themselves. It can even help them stay engaged with your story. Putting together the clues you provide gives the reader an easy but active task to do. “A-ha. He looked at the plate, noticing there’s no more cake. That’s why he’s angry enough to scowl.” It rewards that little puzzle-solving piece of the human brain.

So when are these words still effective?

Dialogue is the obvious one: “It’s likely just a bad bearing,” the mechanic said.

When talking about uncertainty in the future: It was a terrible plan. They’d probably all die.

You can also get away with “probably/likely” if the story is told in a conversational style, as if your narrator is telling you the story in casual vernacular. This type of prose can utilize a lot of informal phrasing because it’s based on how people truly speak.

In conclusion

“Likely/probably” assumptions are a particular pet peeve of mine, I’ll admit, and an issue that crops up frequently in beta reads. I’ve even noticed it in traditionally-published novels, and it’s something I’m guilty of doing in early drafts, too. They are quick and easy shortcuts, after all.

But luckily it’s also simple to fix, and doing so can strengthen your writing dramatically.

Give the exercise above a shot, and share your before/after examples in the comments below!

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