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:

How to See the Normal Through New Eyes

by Roseanna M. White, @RoseannaMWhite

Have you ever noticed how few words there are for door? Seriously. She can approach the door, listen through the wood, knock on the slab, step through the…portal? Er, not unless you’re writing certain genres. Door is something we all encounter a gazillion times a day. Something our characters encounter just as often. Something so mundane that we risk either being repetitive when we mention it, or so creative that it’s distracting.
And that’s just one example. There are countless others. The everyday, ordinary, boring things that sometimes need described. But how do we do it in a way that sounds fresh rather than dull? And more, how to make it sound unique to whichever character we’re writing at the time?

In my July release, A Name Unknown, my heroine is a thief. What’s more, she’s from the roughest part of London. She’s lived in a series of flats ready to tumble down around her. She’s never been out of the city. But for the bulk of the story, she’s in the Cornish countryside, at a manor house. Everything she experiences is new to her, even if it’s old hat to the hero. So writing Rosemary’s perspective made me really exercise my creative muscles.

How would she view the house the first time she walked into it?

What would she think of the meals?

What would this place smell like to her, sound like?

It wasn’t just about utilizing the 5 senses, as we’ve all been taught to do. It was about putting myself into the shoes of someone who had a completely different set of life experiences. Someone who was used to going hungry. To sirens outside her windows instead of chirping birds. Someone who resented the class of people she was now pretending to be a part of.

I fell in love with this process. It was so much fun to pause when I have her entering a new situation and check my own experiences at the door. Suddenly, birdsong became annoying and surprising. Silence was nerve-wracking. The words she knew to apply to things—floor, table, chairs—didn’t seem to fit these items before her. She’s shocked to see sugar on the table when it’s not even Christmas, and flabbergasted when the gentlemen stand when she enters the room. Actions I’ve described countless times in my novels had to become something new.

And rather than just observing people, this accomplished thief catalogues them—and whatever they might be wearing or carrying. Time and again I had to remind myself that she wouldn’t just notice eye or hair color, she’d notice the bulge of a handbag and gleam of a watch. To Rosemary Gresham, the mundane matters only insofar as she can turn it into a meal for her family.

To effectively write a new take on the ordinary, it requires assuming nothing. Questioning everything. Pausing as you frame each scene to wonder how it would look to eyes not your own. And then choosing your words accordingly. On the one hand, it means keeping in mind that a character who has little education and doesn’t read much isn’t likely to liken a fast-moving object to a gazelle, or to notice how silky the sheets are. But it’s instead likening it to things that will provide their POV with the flavor that will set them apart—that fast-moving object is like a train whizzing by the Tube platform, and the sheets so soft they make her aware of the roughness of her own skin.

There still aren’t enough words for door, it’s true. But we can breathe some new life into that slab of wood when we have our characters looking through new eyes at what lies beyond it.


How to See the Normal Through New Eyes by Roseanna M. White (Click to Tweet)

Have you ever noticed how few words there are for door?~ Roseanna M. White (Click to Tweet)

Write a new take on the ordinary. Questioning everything.~ Roseanna M. White (Click to Tweet)

A Name Unknown

She’s Out to Steal His Name.
Will He Steal Her Heart Instead?

Rosemary Gresham has no family beyond the band of former urchins that helped her survive as a girl in the mean streets of London. Grown now, they are no longer pickpockets—now they focus on high value items and have learned how to blend into upper-class society. Rosemary’s challenge of a lifetime comes when she’s assigned to determine whether a certain wealthy gentleman is loyal to Britain or to Germany. How does one steal a family’s history, their very name?

Rumors swirl around Peter Holstein. Awkward and solitary, but with access to the king, many fear his influence. But Peter can’t help his German last name and wants to prove his loyalty to the crown—so he can go back to anonymously writing a series of popular adventure novels. When Rosemary arrives on his doorstop pretending to be a well- credentialed historian, Peter believes she’s the right person to help him dig through his family’s past.

Anger and danger continue to mount, though, and both realize they’re in a race against time to discover the truth—about Peter’s past and about the undeniable attraction kindling between them.

Roseanna M. White
pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of over a dozen historical novels and novellas, ranging from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her British series. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into her novels…to offset her real life, which is blessedly boring. She passes said boring life with her husband and kids in the beautiful mountains of eastern West Virginia. You can learn more about her and her stories at 

In Writing, Little Can Be Much

by Linore Rose Burkard

This past week I took part in “National Life-Chain Sunday,” during which I stood on a sidewalk with a few dozen other souls, holding a sign for passing drivers to read.

My sign had only three words: 
Short. Succinct.

Because little can be much.
I could have chosen a different sign, such as one bearing five words:

This one, too, packed a big punch in few words. 
There were other signs available. But all had only a few words because they needed to be read quickly by drivers going by. As I held the sign and watched the traffic passing, I saw that we had three to five seconds, on average, in which a driver could read the message. 
In case you haven’t noticed, getting attention online is not all that different.
Instead of driving past, readers surf by your carefully crafted blog headline, or email newsletter subject line, or expensive ad. Blogs, landing pages, newsletters and ads all share the need to grab attention and hook a reader–or they’re gone (in three seconds or less, according to some pundits).
Copywriters know this, and make an art of crafting the perfect headlines to catch the attention of their audiences. But what if novelists practiced this? Not just creating the attention-grabbing line, but doing it with as few words as possible.  I wonder if we would become stronger writers. 
Because in many instances in writing, less is more. Little can be much.
Take description. A newer writer shared a chapter of her book with me recently in which she described a main character who had not yet entered the story in person. The description was complete, head to toe, and not badly written. The problem is that it read like a catalogue, perfectly normal, not remarkable–in a word, utterly forgettable. How much more effective had she merely singled out one characteristic of that character? He might have had a noticeable scar, or tattoo. He might have limped when he walked, or spoken with an accent; The distinct feature isn’t important in itself–but ONE distinct feature would have made this character memorable, whereas a dozen did just the opposite.
Less would have been more. 

A great way to see “less is more” in action is to read effective tweets on Twitter, bumper stickers, or, my favorite, T-shirt slogans. The element of surprise, of juxtaposing an idea with an unexpected parallel, seems to work quite well here. Perhaps the principle of a startling analogy is something we can keep in mind when writing our own headlines or other copy–or even a character description. 

See how the following t-shirt slogans are short and sweet–and effective:       

  • A SISTER will give you the shirt off her back….it’s probably yours anyway
  • IRONY. The opposite of wrinkly.
  • Relish Today.  Ketchup Tomorrow.
  • At my age I’ve seen it all, I’ve heard it all, I’ve done it all. I just can’t remember it all.
  • This IS my Sexy Lingerie.
  • I’M ALWAYS LATE. My ancestors arrived on the Juneflower.
The comedic aspect of the surprising parallel needn’t always be present as in the above examples. Even a serious writer can use a startling juxtaposition to make a point. 
  • PAIN AND SUFFERING IS INEVITABLE.  But misery is optional. 
  • There is no worse robber than a bad book. (Italian proverb)
  • Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. (S.Kierkegaard)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…(Dickens)
Whether you feel juxtaposition (a la the startling parallel) translates to writing fiction or not, it is probably a worthwhile endeavor to learn to use the principle, at least in marketing copy.
I’d like to be purposeful about trying it, as I tend to be wordy if left unchecked. And in writing, as we’ve seen, less can be more.
Linore Rose Burkard wrote a trilogy of regency romances
for the Christian market before there were any regencies for the
Christian market. Her books opened up the genre in the CBA. She also
writes YA Suspense/Apocalyptic fiction as L.R. Burkard.
Married with five children, she still home-schools her youngest daughter,
preferably with coffee in one hand and an iPad in the other. Her latest
book, RESILIENCE, is “spine-tingling suspense, where teens carry rifles instead of school books and where survival might mean becoming your own worst enemy.”   
It’s a great time to be a fan of YA novels! L.R.Burkard is back with the next tale in her dystopian series, and the bar of excellence is raised to new heights with this top quality literary offering!
                                —Deena Peterson, Blogger, Reviewer