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:

How to Write Static Description

by Susan May Warren

Writing Description…
Is it telling? Showing? Actually both—you must tell us what the character is seeing. BUT, you also need to do it in a way that helps us FEEL the character’s emotions, and that means SHOWING.

In other words, because we’re always trying to SHOW the character’s emotions, the way they feel about being in a place, or seeing someone is portrayed through their perspective as they describe what they see.

Often, I see clients step out of the POV as they describe something, (as if it were an objective description) and then hop back in to continue the story. But every POV brings their perspective into description—and layered into the story, will reveal character and emotion.

Let’s take a look:

First, there are two kinds of description: Static, and Active. For my next few posts, we’ll dive into Static Description, take it apart and look at how to add an emotional element to it, so it gives your story power.

Static description is used when we want to make a point, focus in on something…like when we see someone for the first time, or walk into a room, or are given or shown something of importance.

When I’m writing Static Description, I like to use the acronym: FOCUS because it helps me think about the different components of static description.

I like to use the word FOCUS because it reminds me to look the eyes of the character, like I would a camera. In essence, I’m taking a “snapshot” for the reader.

This is from Lily’s POV:

The chiffon curtains blew in the traffic clatter and the dusty, smoky redolence of the busy Champs-Élysées, tempered only by the faintest hint of the new horse chestnut blossoms along the boulevard. The luster of la Belle Époque de Paris vanished the moment Lilly stepped out onto the balcony of the Worth family’s Paris estate shortly after her arrival and discovered an encampment of hungry-eyed war orphans leering at her, yearning for breadcrumbs.

The gendarmes chased them away and Lilly had the sense of prairie dogs scattering at the sound of a .22. She could have sent down her tray of café au lait and brioche. She longed for American faire anyway – perhaps a boiled egg, or even a piece of bacon.

The congestion of traffic outside her window – horses pulling carriages, buses belching out black exhaust, trolley cars and Citroens weaving in and out of foot traffic – reminded her too well of their view in New York City. It made her want to close her window, hide inside the safely of the brocade-papered walls, the crackle of the fire in the hearth.

Can you sense that she doesn’t like Paris?

Now, let’s take a look at the SAME place in Rosie’s POV:

Rosie longed for the energy, the joie de vivre of Paris to sweep her up, carrying her down the Champs-Élysées, and into a different life. She may be attending a funeral, the mood more somber as she entered the surge of the crowd, but Paris never did anything without flourish. A band played as the spectacle of Sarah’s Berhardt’s grand final procession urged onto the street all manner of observer. Sailors, dressed for leave, and displaced soldiers still lingering after the war, as if searching for something they’d lost. Frenchmen in bow ties and straw hats, matrons in pearls and furs, despite the spring air, and everywhere Rosie looked, young women in low-waisted dresses, felt cloque hats and men in baggy suits all hustled behind the carriage.

Can you see the difference? It’s all about how they feel about being there. We layer in their attitude while they describe the scene.

It’s all about asking your character: How do you feel about being here? And then layering in this attitude via the way they describe it.

In three weeks, (March 30th) we’ll dive into the Acronym and I’ll show you how to add in emotion and create a powerful word-picture with your description.

Until then…
Go! Write something Brilliant!

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-time Christy 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:

Write a Novella? Easy Peasy …

by +AneMulligan @AneMulligan

Or so I thought.

Why didn’t someone tell me? Sure, a novella contains fewer words—about one quarter of a full novel to be exact. And I thought that meant less work. Ha! I mistakenly figured I wouldn’t need all that goal and motivation stuff. After all, this was short and a romance.

Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

It took a weeklong binge of Hallmark Christmas movies to open my mind to an ugly fact: It takes the same amount of time to work up the character interviews, learn their goals, motivations, lies, wounds, etc. And that list doesn’t even include the plot. Yikes.

I didn’t think of that part when I signed up. No, when some friends called for submissions for a compilation, I just opened my big mouth. The deed done, I needed to figure out how writing a novella was different.

I’m used to penning 90K+ word novels. I show and don’t tell, and I write in deep POV. You don’t do it the same way in a novella. You have to tell a bit more in 20K words or you’ll never get the story inside your word count. But you have to do it so it doesn’t feel like telling. Great.

If you read my last post here on layering you’ll understand more about how I write. You still have to layer in a novella, but there isn’t room for a single word that doesn’t serve double duty. Make that triple duty.

So what’s a writer to do?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I called my critique partners a lot. I had to reconfigure the story I had in mind. Then I wrote a few chapters … and rewrote them … and rewrote—well, you get the idea. I’ve redone all the GMC several times to get it right.

I’ve think written a novel’s worth of words trying to get the 20K right. I have a whole new respect for novella authors.


How does writing a novella compare to writing a full novel? (Click to tweet)

I have a whole new respect for novella authors.~ Ane Mulligan (Click to Tweet)

Award-winning author Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. She’s a novelist, a humor columnist, playwright and creative director of a community theatre. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a dog of Biblical proportion. You can find Ane at her website, Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Critiques or Consequences, Part II ~ When Is a Novel Like a Layer Cake?

by +AneMulligan @AneMulligan

When you add layers, of course!

To draw your readers into your story, you want to create an experience for
them. But that experience is filtered through your POV character. You know that
already? Good.

But are you layering the senses into your fiction so the reader hears, sees,
smells, tastes, and feels it? It’s actually a matter of “showing vs.
telling” gone wild.

If you’re telling them what the character is experiencing, it’s like this:

I can say: “Joan heard a siren in the distance.”

Showing them is like this: A siren wailed in the distance.

Then you take it one step more: A silence wailed in the distance. Joan glanced
in her rearview mirror. The blue flashing lights of an emergency vehicle drew
closer. Her heartbeat accelerated as slowed her car and pulled over.

In the second one, you experience it with her. We’ve all heard a siren. I don’t
know about you, but the first thing I do is check my rearview mirror. I don’t
want to get in their way.

So avoid the word “heard” which immediately makes it telling. The
same with “saw”. I could have said: Joan glanced in her rearview
morrow and saw a flashing blue light.

But by showing you what she saw through her eyes makes for a better read. And
readers can relate to it better than saying she saw.

Another one that is often forgotten is the sense of smell. I love to
incorporate that one into my writing. If your character is taking a walk
through the woods, you want your reader to smell the pines. If it’s after a
rain shower, the forest floor is damp and the scent of leaf mold rises as the
character walks the path.

When Claire enters Dee’s ‘n’ Doughs in any of my Chapel Springs series books,
you join her as the aroma of vanilla, yeast, and sugar waft around her. From
Chapel Springs Revival, the introduction to the bakery went like this:

Claire paused on the threshold for a moment, closed her eyes, and let the
heavenly aroma of yeast, vanilla and almonds entice her. That indulgence alone
would probably add another inch to her waistline.

Most everyone has stepped inside a bakery and smelled what I just described.
Aromas trigger memories and that makes your fiction relatable.


Critique or Consequences, part 2~When is a layer
cake like novel #writing? (Click to tweet)

Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea.
She’s a novelist, a humor columnist, and playwright. She believes chocolate and
coffee are two of the four major food groups and resides in Sugar Hill, GA,
with her artist husband and a dog of Biblical proportion. You can find Ane at or her 

Amazon author page.