Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Roseanne Dowell - How to Show a Story

Today I'm welcoming romance author and tutor of writing, Roseanne Dowell. Roseanne has a wealth of experience and I'll be posting her thoughts on 'Showing and Telling' over the next three days. Before we start, let's learn a little about Roseanne through her own short bio.

Roseanne is a wife, mother of six, grandmother of thirteen with another on the way, and soon to be great-grandmother. As the second youngest of six children, Roseanne always had a vivid imagination and loved to make up stories. An avid reader, she often dreamed of becoming a writer. Roseanne started writing when her children were young, but only began submitting her work about six years ago. During a Book Club meeting, Roseanne admitted her dream to write. Members of her Book Club encouraged her to pursue her writing and to submit her work.

Although Satin Sheets was her first published novel, Roseanne has over forty articles and stories published in magazines – Good Old Days, Nostalgia, and Ohio Writer and several online publications. She also teaches writing courses for Long Story School of Writing and taught two writing courses for the Encore Program at Cuyahoga Community College.

Now let's check out Roseanne's tips for that crucial skill in the writer's toolbox: showing, not telling.

What's the Difference between Show and Tell?
I can tell you a story complete with description of rooms, characters, and setting. But can I show you the story? Can I show you the characters through actions, not just description? Anyone can tell a story – but it takes work to show one. It’s always easier to tell than show. But with practice, as with everything in writing, it will become second nature.

What do I mean by show not tell? Some people think by adding adverbs, the dreaded LY words to your story that you are showing, but that’s not true. Whenever we can use a strong verb we should avoid using adverbs. We can say he ran quickly and that tells (note I said TELLS) us how he ran, but if we say he raced or hurried, we now know he ran quickly without the author telling us, and without using an adverb.

Keeping the Autor's Voice out of the Story
Showing is keeping the author's voice out of the story. Any time the author's voice intrudes, it distracts from the story. So how do we do that? How do we avoid telling the story from the author’s point of view?

For starters, let’s talk about verbs, one of the critical parts of show. Avoiding verbs like is, was, etc. the “to be” verbs makes for a stronger story. They show nothing. The more active a verb the better - for instance, He went to the store. – He walked to the store – He hurried to the store. While walked is better than went, hurried shows us more. We can still make that a stronger sentence – He hurried to the store, head down, concentrating. Okay now we get a picture of him, but - it's still tell. How then do we make this a strong show statement? By getting into his head?

First let’s give him a name. Larry will work. Larry hurried to the store. Darn, always the last minute. What does she think I am, can’t she plan anything ahead of time? It’s not like I have all the time in the world to run around picking up what she forgot.

Do we see the character now? By putting thoughts into Larry’s head we know he’s upset with someone - someone who can’t remember to do things for herself and he’s impatient. We can tell that by the tone of his thoughts, he’s feeling put upon.

Sometimes, One Word is all it Takes
Sometimes with just one word, we can show anger, sympathy, or even passion. Take the word cried, change it to sobbed or whimpered and we change the whole tone of the scene. Sobbed shows more emotion. We could say, ‘she sat crying on the floor’, but that only tells us she is crying. If we say she sank to the floor and sobbed - it takes more words, but we feel the emotion. It’s a more powerful scene.

Look at the following example: Rose was angry. She stood with her hand on the knob when the bell rang. She opened the door and looked into the steel gray eyes of an older man accompanied by a young girl. Rose was surprised. She stared at the man.

Compare this to - Rose reached for the door knob. I’ll show them. I’ll just go over there and let their parents know that they threw snowballs at my house. Little monsters, why can’t they leave me alone, go play in their own yards. The doorbell rang. She yanked the door open and confronted the steel gray eyes of an older man accompanied by the young girl. “I, it’s…” Rose, seldom at a loss for words, stared at him.

In example #1 - I tell you she is angry, that she opened the door, and sees the man and that she is surprised. In example #2, I show her anger through her thoughts. She’s mad at the neighborhood kids and when the bell rings she doesn’t just open the door she yanks it open. Her stuttering shows her frustration. By using dialogue along with action, I let the reader figure out she’s surprised. Our readers are intelligent people – they can figure it out.
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The above examples using Rose are from Roseanne's book, Time to Live Again, available at Red Rose Publishing and

Join us again tomorrow when Roseanne talks about using action tags as a tool to show and not tell.


  1. It's good to be reminded of the distinctions between showing and telling, because it can mean the difference between selling/not selling to a publisher. Thank you for this informative piece, Roseanne.
    My Book Discussion Group has been very supportive of my first novel, too. It's great to have their encouragement.
    Cherie Le Clare.

  2. This looks like quite an informative post. I'm looking forward to the rest!

    Joanna Aislinn
    The Wild Rose Press

  3. Enjoyed the post - very good insight.

  4. Show/don't tell is like all the mysteries of writing, if anyone could do it, well, everyone would! Thank goodness it's a subtle talent that only a chosen few possess! Great examples from the author's work. It helped me come up with an awesome scene on the beach for my novel, Night Surfing...Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget

  5. Great blog. I fight that telling often!
    If only I could do it first time every time!

  6. Hi there Cherie, Joanna, P.L., Word Actress and Mary - thanks so much for stopping by. I'll be posting the 2nd instalment of Roseanne's guest post tonight (NZ time). Hope you're having a fabulous day (night?) - the time differences are bewildering to me!

  7. I love the comment about ONE word. I find myself wrestling over single words, always verbs, all the time. It has to be perfect and she wrote so clearly what it means!

    I'll have to traceback- I think that's what it's called- for other authors to check out : )