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  • Writer's pictureJanette Johnson Melson

Show; Don't Tell. But how?

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that time and again I am learning just how much I don’t know about writing fiction. It’s humbling, but I’m also enjoying the process of learning. School was fun for me because I love to learn new things.

One area of weakness which has been annoying me lately is my inability to “show, not tell.” Now that might seem odd to you since authors are story“tell”ers by nature. We aren’t called story “show”ers. But maybe we should be. It is our job to bring our readers into the heart of the story’s action and make them live it along with our characters. If our readers feel like they are sitting around a campfire having a story told to them, we have missed our mark. As authors, we want our readers to taste the sweet but tart lemon bar, feel the coolness of the breeze, smell the cinnamon hanging in the store window—all the things that our characters are experiencing. But I wasn’t getting it right.

The thing that has bugged me the most about this weakness is that I thought I had mastered it. (Ok. Mastered is a little strong, but I did think I was getting it right most of the time.) However, this most recent round of contest feedback, while the highest scores I have received yet, has shown me that I haven’t quite conquered it.

Luckily, an online article I read last month hit home with me. (You can read it here: The author said that an easy way to show rather than tell is to avoid emotion and sense words. Don’t say that your heroine is relieved or scared; explain how she knows this.

Let me explain to you what I mean with some examples:

Telling: Penny was so relieved to find the little stuffed bear that she refused to let him out of her sight for the rest of the day.

Showing: Penny grabbed the little stuffed bear from its hiding place under the park bench. Squeezing it hard against her chest, she whispered into its raggedy ear. “I’m not letting you out of my sight ever again.”

The first example with Penny uses the word relieved, whereas, the second example shows her relief through her actions. Another tip for showing, not telling is to have your characters express what they’re feeling in spoken words or thought. We can feel how desperate Penny was at having lost the bear when she whispers in its ear.

Telling: As Ginger stopped abruptly, she heard a sound behind her and felt fear envelop her like a thick cloud.

Showing: As Ginger skidded to a stop, a crunch in the leaves behind her caused the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end.

In the Telling example, I use two sense words, heard and felt. We’ve been told she heard something but are left wondering what kind of sound it was—a twig cracking, a gunshot, a scream. But in the Showing one, I describe it as a crunch of leaves, then further describe what hearing that crunch does to her physically. Thus, I show that she’s afraid instead of telling that she is.

I also added a bonus edit in the Ginger example. Remember a few blogs ago when I explained that authors are supposed to avoid adverbs? You can see here how I changed “stopped abruptly” to “skidded to a stop.”

I do think I’m on the road to figuring this whole “show, not tell” aspect out. But it has not been an easy one for me. If you’re on this journey with me because you want to be a writer, too, hopefully this has been helpful. If you’re reading this because you are simply interested in my journey, I hope you found it entertaining. Either way, let me know by commenting below, dropping me an email at, or commenting on my Facebook page, @JanetteJohnsonMelson.Author.

Oh, by the way, just in case you missed it in last month’s newsletter, a children’s picture book I have written is one of three finalists in a writers’ contest I entered in March. I find out if I won on August 18, so stay tuned.

Love you bunches and boocoodles!

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Jul 21, 2021

Wow! I loved your examples, Janette! You'll have to help me! Hoping with you on the children's book!😊

Janette Johnson Melson
Janette Johnson Melson
Jul 25, 2021
Replying to

Thanks as always for your kind words and support, Terri! 😘

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