How to Show and When to Tell

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

“Show, Don’t Tell.”  Listen, I know it can be confusing.  Especially since there is not only misinformation and bad teaching out there, but also because there IS a time Tell!
Showing, not Telling is not about describing everything that happens. And Telling has nothing to do with narrative and backstory.  Narrative and backstory (and even action) get a bad rap because often, during narrative, backstory, and action, authors drop into “telling” without realizing it.  Describing ACTION by saying “John shot Bill.” is not telling.  It’s action.  But adding:  “John felt sorry when he shot Bill,” would be telling.
See, I know. Confusing.
Here’s the bottom line:  Showing is about helping the reader experience the emotions of the character. Showing brings us into the mind and heart of the character to understand their emotional journey.
Here’s how:  If you say, ‘She felt grief,’ or even, and this is more common, ‘Grief overtook her’ you are not just telling us what emotion she’s feeling, but you’re pinpointing one emotion your reader must feel with the character. Instead, show us how despair makes her feel through how she acts, what she thinks, what she says and how she sees her world. Let us into your character’s head.

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Telling is when you tell someone how to feel. It relates to the emotion to the story, not the narrative, backstory, and action.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say your character has just lost her husband. She’s come home from the funeral to the quiet house and gone upstairs to her room.  Here are some options:
You could say: She stood in front of the closet and grieved. However, we feel like an onlooker, a voyeur into her world. We are told how she feels but don’t experience her grief.
Further from that, but also a telling, is: She stood in front of the closet and felt grief course through her. We’re closer to understanding how she feels, but we’ve still been told exactly the emotion she’s experiencing.
Better is: She stood in front of the closet and wept. Here, we’re closer to experiencing what the character is feeling. We might understand what it feels like to stand there and simply weep.
But what if we took it further. What if we let the reader into the character’s skin to feel the grief?
She stood at the edge of the closet and stared at his polished shoes, at his pressed wool suits, at his crisp silky red ties. A tidy man. Not the kind to wrap his car around a tree. But there, in the back…she pushed aside the shirts and pulled out his letter jacket, the one he’d wrapped around her the night they’d met. She inhaled. Thirty years, and still his scent lingered. Please, let it linger. Please let her rewind, go back to the fight, erase her words. Erase his anger. Without a word, she stepped inside the closet, closed the door behind her, pulled the jacket over her, and wept.
Never once do I say that she is grieving. But I weave it in through her perspective, the five senses, and rich details and finally her actions.
Here’s the part that people confuse. Often I see people over-showing in their effort to not tell.  What happens, then, is they write, “She bent at the knees, lowering herself into the chair,” instead of simply saying, “She sat.”  Don’t laugh – I’ll be you could find this in your early drafts! (I know I can!)  Authors spend precious words showing how a person rises from a chair, or how they get dressed. Don’t do this! Tell actions that are common to all of us.  She tied her shoe, she made coffee, she answered the phone.  We all get what this looks like.
However, show actions that you want to make an impact. If you want answering the phone to have impact, then have her reach for the phone, check the caller id, maybe hover her thumb over the receive button. Then push it before her courage fails.
Here are the easy rules for Show Don’t Tell:
Tell us everyday actions, SHOW us the important ones that reveal emotions.
            Show us the emotion, don’t tell us about it.
Are you bogging down your story by showing actions that have no emotional connection to the story?  Here’s a litmus test. Ask: How does the emotion impact your character?  Are you showing this emotion through words, action, thought and perspective?
Better yet,  Write the scene without naming the emotion! It’ll make you stretch and help you become a better writer.
Go – write something brilliant!
Susie May

Troubled Waters (Montana Rescue Book #4)

Billionaire Ian Shaw can have everything he wants–except a happy ending. Or at least that’s what it feels like with his fortune recently liquidated, his niece, Esme, still missing, and the woman he loves refusing to speak to him. In fact, he doubts she would date him even if they were stranded on a deserted island.

Despite her love for Ian, Sierra Rose knows he has no room in his life for her as long as the mystery of his missing niece goes unsolved. The only problem is, Sierra has solved it, but a promise to Esme to keep her whereabouts secret has made it impossible to be around Ian.

When the PEAK chopper is damaged and Sierra lacks the funds to repair it, Ian offers a fundraising junket for large donors on his yacht in the Caribbean. But the three-day excursion turns into a nightmare when a rogue wave cripples the yacht and sends the passengers overboard. Shaken up and soaked to the bone, Ian finally has a chance to test his theory when he and Sierra do indeed find themselves washed up on a strange, empty shore.

It will take guts and gumption for the PEAK team to rescue the duo. But it will take a miracle to rescue Ian and Sierra’s relationship.

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: Contact her at:

Using Coloring Emotions to Create Unique Scenes

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

An aspiring author once asked me about describing a character’s emotional responses in a scene (show don’t tell!) and still be original every time. So let’s talk about it. What is a good way for describing emotional responses with originality?

I love this question because it’s all about going deeper with your characterization, and really drawing the reader into the story in a way that connects. I believe there are four levels to portraying emotion.

Level 1: Just the facts.

“He was angry.”

Of course, this is boring, and holds the reader the farthest away.

Level 2: Involving the body.

“Anger filled his throat.”

Not bad, because we can understand how that might choke someone, but again, it keeps the reader at arm’s length, unable to relate.

Level 3: The visceral response.

“His throat clogged with emotions that cut off his words.”

Now, we are closer, the emotions remain unnamed, allowing the reader to imagine for himself the array of emotions that might cut off words.

Each level gets further away from telling the reader what to think. But if we really want a reader to engage with a character’s emotions, we need to go to the final level.

Level 4: Put them inside the character’s skin.

How do we do that? 3 STEPS

Step one: Understand the emotions of the scene.

No emotion is pure — every emotion has corresponding “colors.” For example, let’s say the anger above was prompted by someone breaking into your house. That emotion might also contain feelings of helplessness, and revenge. But if the anger is from a spouse cheating, it might also contain the emotions of loss and betrayal. Find out what other emotions are embedded in the main emotion.

Step two: Chose one of the coloring emotions to focus on as you draw out the scene. What metaphor could you use to convey that emotion?

Step three: Create a scene WITHOUT NAMING any of the emotions, or visceral responses.

So how does this work? Before writing a scene, ask yourself what emotions would the character be feeling? Is it love? Could it also be fear of losing that love? And at the same time panic, over losing freedom? Maybe it’s also surprise, that it could happen to them.

Now, what emotion could you pull out of that mix to illuminate the emotion of love? Maybe a woman loves someone who is going to leave for the military, and yet hasn’t admitted it to herself, or him? To illuminate that growing emotion, she could throw out all the newspapers in the house that talk about war. She could refuse to listen to the news.

Finally, what emotion can you then contrast with that first one, to really explore the many sides? Anger, over his patriotism?

Taking a closer look at an emotion and pulling out one of the shades to explore or illuminate makes your character’s emotions not only more real, but sympathetic to the reader as they recognize their own emotions (maybe even for the first time!) in a character’s actions.

Love. Anger. Happiness. These are broad, blanket emotions that can take on many actions and facets. Many “colors.” I want to give you a glimpse of how I did this in my book Taming Rafe.

Rafe’s a tough guy…a bull-rider. And he’s hurt deeply by the actions of the woman he loves. He’s been through a lot, and he’s broken. At his darkest moment, I didn’t want him to punch things, or go on a drinking binge…I wanted the reader to enter into his despair. As I looked at the emotion of GRIEF, I saw: Regret and Hopelessness. I picked those emotions to work with to illuminate the depth of his grief.

Rafe slammed his way upstairs, banged open his bedroom door. The entire house shook. Crossing the room, he ripped his Bobby Russell and Lane Frost posters off the wall and grabbed the box of videotapes he’d dug out for Kitty. He took his trophies, his ribbons, his two championship buckles, and the scrapbook he’d kept for himself over the years and shoved them into his PBR duffel bag. Then he threw them all over his shoulder and stormed back downstairs.

Piper, Stefanie, and Nick stood in the kitchen, holding a powwow of concern.

He ignored them, marched back out to Piper’s truck, threw the bag in the back, and roared out.

He took the back roads to the burial mound, driving as fast as he could without dropping one of the axles. He stopped at the bottom of the hill, lugged out the bag, and muscled himself up the hill.

He threw sticks and twigs together, and taking a lighter he’d found in Piper’s glove compartment, he knelt and lit a blaze.

The flame crackled as it devoured the sticks, then the kindling, and finally the larger pieces of wood he added for fuel. The flame showed no distinction between the fragile and the hearty, biting into the wood with tongues of orange, red, and yellow.

Rafe opened the duffel. Instead of dumping the entire thing on the flames, he pulled the items out one by one. His posters. They burned in a second, curling into tight balls. The ribbons, which sent out an acrid odor. The scrapbook. The fire started on the edges, burning away the accomplishments, the defeats. Then the tapes. The smell of plastic burning made his eyes water and sent black smoke into the now bruised sky. The trophies would take hours to fully burn, but their plastic mounts deformed and caved in on themselves immediately. Finally, the buckles. He dropped both of them into the flames, feeling his throat thicken.

He closed his eyes, smelling a bull’s hide, dirty and sweaty, feeling the adrenaline spike through his body, the jarring as every muscle, every bone screamed in pain. He felt the rush of relief as he let go and rolled off the back hip of the bull, found his feet, and ran to safety. He heard the crowd roar.

The flames crackled, spitting and popping as they devoured his life. The bull rider. The man Kitty claimed she believed in.

Rafe drew up his good knee, crossed his arms atop it, buried his head in them, and for the first time since his mother died—even during Manuel’s funeral, even in the dark months that followed—Rafe let himself cry.

I don’t name the emotions – regret, hopelessness, grief…but hopefully you can feel them.

Now it is your turn. What is your character emotion and how can you bring that on the page with these steps?

A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.

Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: Contact her at: