Writers in the Storm

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May 24, 2013

What’s the Visual? Adding Power To Your Writing.

Margie Lawson is back with another can't miss blog! AND, a giveaway. Read on!

Margie LawsonWriters know SHOW DON’T TELL, but some know it cognitively. It’s rote.

They know SHOW DON’T TELL the same way they know i before e except after c.

Applying SHOW DON’T TELL is tougher than it seems. It’s one of Barbara Kingsolver’s Top Five Rules for Writing Fiction.

Show, don't tell. Everybody knows this rule, and most of us still break it in every first draft.

I don’t care if you TELL in your first draft. I care if you TELL in a polished draft, or in print.

I see way too much TELLING in assignments posted to my classes. And sometimes the writers can’t see the problem.

One way to learn the power of SHOW DON’T TELL, is to look at a sentence and ask yourself, “What’s the Visual?”

I’ll share a few BEFORE and AFTER examples from my online classes. You’ll see my notes from class in red font.

These two writers gave me permission to use their examples, and their names.


The first example is from Callene Rapp, a multi-Margie-Grad, and Immersion grad.

Callene Rapp, Bloodstone


The cat turned to face her, snarling and snapping its jaws.  But instead of running away, it now saw Elieana as its new prey.

My notes:

PINK – Love the alliteration.

BLUE – Telling.  I’d nix TELLING.

 What’s the visual? How does E know she’s prey?


The cat turned to face her, snarling and snapping. But instead of fleeing, it crept toward her, one paw then another, lethal, menacing.

Excellent!  Much stronger! 

Callene provided the visual, gave it a cadence boost, added power words, and made me cringe.  😉

BLOG GUESTS:  My last sentence is an example of an obscure rhetorical device, ZEUGMA.  So fun – and powerful.

Second Example from Callene Rapp, Bloodstone


She scrambled to her feet and ran to Lia. The furious look on Arin’s face stopped her cold. A mix of fury, panic, fear.

 Blood was everywhere.

My notes:

PINK -- Stellar writing.

Love that flicker face emotion!

BLUE  -- What’s the visual?  Where is the blood?


She scrambled to her feet and ran to Lia.  The furious look on Arin’s face stopped her cold. A mix of fury, panic, fear.

Blood welled up from Lia’s ruined shoulder, gleaming darkly in the moonlight. It pooled on the ground, covered Arin’s hands and clothes. Too much blood. Too much for a little girl to lose and live.

Wow!  Look what a difference Callene made in that rewrite.

She did more than share the visual, she amplified that visual, added more power words, and backloaded the paragraph with a power internalization.

Here’s a BEFORE and AFTER from Lori Freeland. Lori is a multi-Margie-grad and an Immersion Master Class grad too. 

Lori Freeland, Awakenings


I turned and marched up another flight of stairs.

The stairwell was silent behind me. I turned around again.

Rane hadn’t moved.

My notes:

BLUE – Okay. But what’s the visual? 

We’re missing the subtext. Missing the emotion. Missing the power.


The clomping behind me stopped. “You won’t like it.”

I climbed a few more stairs. “How many flippin’ stages are there?”

“Four and the third lets you download other people’s memories.”

I stumbled down the steps I’d just come up.

He caught me by the hips.

Even through my jeans, the burn of his hands slammed my stomach. I spun to face him. Had to grip the railing for balance. He was too close. Intimate close.

He gave me an I-told-you-so look.

I backed up a step, putting us more eye level, and tightened my fingers around the cold, metal rail. “As in, I double as a flash drive?”

“As in an Imax in your head.” He rested his foot on the step where I stood, leaned in, leaving zero personal space between us. “The memories will feel like you lived them. Complete with whatever baggage they bring.”

Kudos to Lori Freeland.

She added visuals. She empowered this passage with a look and a visceral reaction and proximity and fresh writing.

She gave the scene more emotion. More psychological power.

No surprise that judges are impressed with her writing. She’s won four writing contests.

Here’s another way writers sometimes TELL.


I call the two or three words tacked on to the end of some sentences telling tags.

They often are “with” or “in” phrases like, “with a thud,” or “in anger.”

Consider this sentence:

Brad Pitt kicked the cement wall in anger.

In context, the reader would know his emotion. It’s probably frustration or anger.  No need to label the emotion for the reader.

Brad Pitt kicked the cement wall.

Sometimes the writer SHOWS AND TELLS.  If the emotion is ambiguous, include the label. If it’s obvious, nix the label.

You’ve probably read these lines:

  • His eyes opened wide in surprise.
  • He slammed his fist on the table in frustration.
  • Worry lines around her eyes deepened with disapproval.
  • He stomped out of the room in anger.

Sometimes writers avoid the Telling Tags at the end, and put the label at the beginning of the sentence.

  • Depressed, her shoulders slumped.
  • Irritated, he slammed the door.
  • Emotional, she wiped her tears.
  • Shocked, he opened his mouth, closed it.

We usually don’t need Telling Tags.

Some writers fall into a pattern of using them. It’s easy to nix them. Easy to break that pattern.

What Emotion is Behind the Visual?

Sometimes writers can create an opportunity to write the emotion behind a visual. When they do it right, it’s a natural flow. No speed bumps.

Laura Drake is one of those authors who weaves emotion into her scenes so smoothly, you don’t see it coming until it squeezes your heart.

Laura Drake is also a multi-Margie-grad, and an Immersion grad.

Cover - The Sweet SpotLaura Drake, The Sweet Spot

The POV character is in the cereal aisle of the grocery.

Scanning the boxes of cereal, her gaze snagged on Benje’s favorite brand. Her fingers tightened on the cart handle. How dare it still be here when he wasn’t?

She’d gotten pretty good at steeling herself against these little jabs to the heart, small wounds that drained her if she didn’t avoid minefields like the toy section, or the kid’s clothing department. But how do you shield your heart from Count Chocula? Her finger traced the cartoon vampire on the box, then made herself move on. If someone found her sobbing over a box of cereal they’d probably haul her away. Clean up on aisle six! Lord, she wanted a pill so badly her skin crawled. Surely she’d earned it today.

What did Laura do?

She used a visual, a box of cereal, as a trigger for emotion. She gave us visuals. She amplified. She added power words. She included a short visceral hit. She used humor, and angst.

She put me in that cereal aisle. I felt her character’s pain.

FYI: THE SWEET SPOT will be released May 28th.


At the end of every paragraph, ask yourself, “What’s the visual? How could I make that paragraph carry more psychological power?

If you’d like to read more stellar examples and my deep edit analyses, check out the Pubbed Margie-Grad Blog on my web site.

Check out my lecture packets and online courses too. I’m teaching two new classes this year:

This month: A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop

In August:  Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts

The lecture packet for the Make Openings Pop course will be available in June.


Post a comment and you could win an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy!

The winner will be announced Sunday evening on this blog.


NYT Bestseller, Brenda Novak, donates an amazing chunk of her life to fundraising for diabetes research. She selflessly gives months of her energy, creativity, and what would have been writing time and family time to her diabetes auction.

Margie’s Donations:

1. A Year of Lawson Writer’s Academy Courses

2. A 25 page Triple Pass Deep Edit Critique

3. Immersion Master Class Donation Package!  Registration for 4-day Immersion class. Lodging in Margie’s guest room. TWO BONUS DAYS after Immersion class ends.  Margie deep edits your WIP with you for three hours on each bonus day. Total Value: $1500!

THE DIABETES AUCTION runs May 1ST to May 31ST. Tour the Diabetes Auction site: http://brendanovak.auctionanything.com

128 comments on “What’s the Visual? Adding Power To Your Writing.”

  1. Wow, what a difference the visuals aspect made! I am going to go back over my WIP to see how many opportunities to make my work shine I can find.



    1. Hello Ruth --

      So glad you'll review your WIP and find places to add power by showing the visual. Excellent!

      I trust that you'll write fresh, pay attention to flow and cadence and power words, and when it's more critical, toss in an obscure rhetorical device. 🙂

  2. Margie, like opening my favortie book, each time you visit I find something new, something fresh, something I can incorporate ... (a Margie moment just for you 🙂

    Since my nemisis is I talk too darn much, the issue of "telling" is a major challenge. What happens when I meet the challenge and kill off the little buggers ruinning my moments, is less talk and more action. Thanks. I refer to your packets and the examples they provide often.

    And yes, we all need to run to our favorite book seller and buy Sweet Spot 🙂

    1. Hello Ramblings!

      Ah -- Thank you, thank you!

      Good for you for using my lecture packets to boost your creativity and rescue your scene. Smart!

      Hope to see you in my new class in August: Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts.


  3. Wonderful examples, Margie. Kudos to your students. Love Laura's example and can't wait to read The Sweet Spot. She'll be our guest on Get Lost in a Story on May 28th, by the way. 🙂 Happy Friday and safe holiday!

    1. Hey Donnell!

      Always great to cyber-see you. Since we live only two hours apart, we should get together more often to play!

      I'll definitely drop by Get Lost in a Story on May 28th. And -- Laura will be on my Pubbed Margie Grad Blog on May 28th too!

  4. It is amazing how reading a visual description can evoke such a strong psychological response in a reader (not to mention how reading simple but powerful advice from an expert can evoke the irresistable urge to ask more questions and learn more). Thanks!

    1. Rebecca --

      Loved the way you structured your reply. Great content, great cadence. 🙂

      Sounds like you're a Margie-virgin. If you have questions about my courses or lecture packets, feel free to contact me through my web site.

      Hope to see you online - and/or in person. 😉

  5. Wonderful tips—thanks Margie! As much as I try to eliminate all telling, I'm sure my m/s still contains far too many slips.

  6. Margie, I have been soaking up your advice with your lectures on Empowering Characters' Emotions. This post is another motivator to dig deeper when I am writing and editing! Thanks for your tips!

      1. Orly, I bought the lecture packets right after the last time Margie had a guest post here. I thought I should start with one of the first courses she recommends, and she isn't teaching that one right now. But, what a huge difference just reading the lectures and doing the assignments on my own has made.

    1. Melissa --
      Thank you for letting me know that the lecture packet for Empowering Characters' Emotions made a difference. I have to mention -- I cover 87 million more deep editing tips and techniques in my other courses too.
      I may have used hyperbole in the previous sentence. 🙂
      Hope to meet you sometime!

      1. Margie, I am almost finished with the course, and plan to work my way through your offerings. When I can, I will definitely be taking some online and in person. I would love to meet you!

        If any Margie followers are looking for a CP, I'd love to find one of you. I write MG and YA fantasy. Already the colors jump out at me as does telling vs. showing when I am beta reading someone else's work!

  7. Oh Margie, what a surprise to read down,and find a quote from my book! Squeee!

    Everyone, just ask the WITS bloggers - I blah-blah'd my way through two books before I was lucky enough to meet Margie. You may have noticed that 'Margie's Army' (her students) are a little rabid in their praise of her. There's a reason for that. She took me from 'good rejections' to 'sold' -- seven novels in a year and a half!

    Her Deep Edits were an epiphany for me. The first of many, as her student. Do your writing a favor...take a class. Any class. You'll be joining her raucous fans, promise.

  8. Awesome examples. Makes me want to sift telling from my ms this minute!

    1. Hey Melissa --

      Knowing your commitment to making your writing carry power, I'm confident you will nix most telling!

      Hope to work with you in Immersion in 2014. Want to host an Immersion class at your house?

    1. Cynthia --

      I've missed connecting with you. Glad you liked the examples!

      It usually takes more words to show not tell. But -- overall, when deep editing a manuscript, you'll end up with about the same word count, or a little shorter.

      No more Yammering Yellow!

      If word count needs to be increased, it's easy to add more psychological power.

      Hope to see you sometime!

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this. The telling tags examples were very helpful. I didn't used to use them and I recently started inserting them a lot, thinking they lent more power to my sentences. I'm glad it hasn't yet turned into a habit for me.

  10. Very helpful, Margie, and timely for me since I've been thinking about this lately. You're right, we all do telling on the early drafts. I suppose sometimes in the heat of writing, it just needs to get down there on the page (screen). In the rewriting stages I do try to identify where I tell and not show but sometimes I miss spotting the telling in my own work. So, I've taken to trying to spot it in published books that I read. The other day I came across this sentence in a published book. "It had settled over the house and crouched in the corners." The previous paragraph referred to "trouble" being present so the pronoun "It" refers to trouble. What do you think of that sentence? At first I thought, this is telling; I'm not getting an image. But there is the visual of "trouble" crouching in the corner. So, I was confused on what to think if it was showing or telling. Your thoughts?

    1. Paula --

      If the sentence you shared was posted in my cyber classroom, I'd recommend nixing IT and repeating TROUBLE.

      “It had settled over the house and crouched in the corners.”

      "Trouble had settled over the house and crouched in the corners.”

      It's TELLING, but it's what I call emotion-themed personification.

      Personification is perfect to reinforce a fear-based element in a scene. NYT Bestseller Allison Brennan (also a Margie-Grad) uses personification in high-emotion scenes in her thrillers.

      Thanks for asking!

      1. Paula --

        The TELLING in that sentence is personification.

        “Trouble had settled over the house and crouched in the corners.”

        No must-adhere-to rules. That sentence is like a soundtrack in a movie. It works because it reinforces the emotional set.

        I like the way you think. Hope to see you in an online class sometime!

  11. Awesome!! Thank you so much. I can always count on this blog for the best writing advice.

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Melissa McClone!
      Thank you!
      BEFORES and AFTERS are such powerful and fun ways to SHOW the impact of deep editing.
      Thanks for chiming in!

  12. If any of you have done the Insanity workouts, you'll know that Margie is the Shaun T. of writing. DIG DEEPER! My brain hurts, but my writing is so much better for having Margie push me. These were FANTASTIC examples and that's one of many reasons Margie is such a fantastic teacher. She doesn't just tell you something doesn't work for her, but shows why and gives us writers tools for improving our writing. Funny how that SHOW, DON'T TELL thing works with teaching too! 🙂

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Micki!

      I'm the Shaun T. of writing? Insanity workouts for your brain?
      Yes! Perfect analogy. 🙂
      I loved working with you in Immersion class -- and hope I get to work with you in an Advanced Immersion class.
      I'm excited about presenting for YA RWA at National this year - - and seeing you!

  13. First of all, I won an advanced reading copy of SWEET SPOT by Laura Drake, and yes, she puts you there, right in the character's shoes.

    I can see such a difference when I do this with my own writing. But it does take commitment and time to go through and add that punch throughout. I'm looking forward to having my writing shredded by Margie in an upcoming immersion class. 🙂 Honestly, I want to tell the best story I can, in the best way I can, so I'm eager to make sure every paragraph and every word does its job.

  14. This helps me to show more and tell less. My WIP is in first person. I have to figure out how to figure out how to show from a child's point of view.

    1. Heather --
      Yes! Have fun saying and thinking everything like that child.
      A lot of writers forget about using a child's vocabulary and phrasing in internalizations too.
      I recommend doing the age-appropriate things that your POV character does. Get inside their skin. See-saw? Climb trees? Climb out a window? 😉

  15. So do I sound like a total dork if I say I feel like I've 'arrived' as a writer if Margie Lawson uses an example from my WIP for a blog post?! And an example of getting it right to boot! Thanks Margie, for all your awesomeness, your stellar teaching, and never letting us settle for anything less than our very best. I like the comparison to Margie as the Shaun T of writing!

    1. Callene --

      You're no dork!

      Your writing is STRONG!

      Someday - I will feature you on my Pubbed Margie Grad Blog.

      Write faster. Query sooner. Get THE CALL sooner!

  16. I love the excellent examples to deepen the emotions. It improves how I approach my writing.

  17. Wonderful examples. Thanks for sharing them - especially the revision of "blood was everywhere." Boy, did I get a visual after the edit.

    Nice writing, Callene. So vivid!

    1. Sherri --

      I agree! Callene's revision for "Blood was everywhere." is stellar.

      Her amplification provided more detail for the visual. Perfect!

      Thanks for chiming in.

  18. You're examples and explanations, along with specific techniques authors can use to ramp up the power and visual impact of their story, make it very easy to become a better writer. Thanks for sharing these effective strategies.

    1. Maria --

      You're welcome!

      Now you have a taste of my teaching style. My courses are loaded with examples that are dissected and analyzed. Hundreds of teaching points in the 350 plus pages in most of my courses. Check out my lecture packets!

  19. Great post Margie. I really needed this info. *raises hand* I'm guilty of some telling. I loved all the excerpts and rewrites.
    Laura, I can't wait until Sweet Spot comes out.
    Thanks so much.

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Bonnie!
      I loved the excerpts and rewrites too!
      Your writing is STRONG! Write faster -- and edit faster -- so I can feature you on my Pubbed Margie Grad Blog!

  20. Okay, now I get what all the hooplah's about when ladies whisper excitedly about the latest Margie Lawson event. Jewels of wisdom. I enjoyed this. I am tickled that you don't mind floating body parts. That rule always confused me.
    -A. H.

    1. Hello A. H. -
      Glad you enjoyed the blog!
      I didn't notice any flying body parts in the examples. We may have different interpretations for flying body parts. No worries!

  21. I had zeugma once. The shots were really painful.
    Seriously, I bought six copies of Laura Drake's western romance. We love those at the Arapahoe Library District, and her writing looks great. (I buy fiction for the district--it's like having a job buying chocolate.)
    I learned quite a bit from your examples. I especially liked the "telling" tags. I have seen them, been bugged by them, but wasn't sure why.
    As always, thanks for the excellent info!

    1. Alice --

      Ha! Now you know Zeugma. 🙂

      I want a job buying chocolate!

      So cool that you bought six copies of THE SWEET SPOT for your library district. You'll have lots of happy readers.

      Glad what I shared about Telling Tags helped de-bug you. 😉

  22. Great information. It is so easy to tell - it is WAY better to show and bring that reader in. Counting down the days until I make it back to Coal Creek Canyon.

  23. Great examples, Margie! Sometimes I worry about getting too "purple" with my visuals, but I should try not to over-think it so much. I may be going to the PNWA Conference this summer and I saw on the brochure that you'll be there presenting your EDITS workshop. If I get to go, I'll see you there! 🙂

    1. Karen --

      Glad you liked the examples. Me too!

      I hope you go to the PNWA conference this summer. It would be so fun to get together there! Let me know.

  24. Loved Laura's snippet. I've got a WIP about a mom with no money and a child at home. "Count Chocula" reminded me of how specifics illuminate a scene and make it truly personal. Thanks Margie, for showing rather than telling me how to make my story stronger.

    1. E --
      Yes. Sharing specificity that counts -- makes a big difference in drawing the reader in to the story. Laura did such a good job throughout the book. Stellar!

  25. I'd like to add that fight scenes and love scenes often tend to fall victim to the lack of "show, don't tell." I think most writers don't have much experience with fighting, and many feel uncomfortable writing physical details in love scenes. I invested in a couple of books on writing fight scenes and found them very helpful, and I have several books on writing love scenes by authors such as Emma Holly and Angela Knight. It helps if writers have a better idea what they're writing about, since being able to visualize specific details makes them easier to describe on paper.

    1. Kaye --
      You're so right about fight scenes and love scenes. Glad you found some strong resources.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  26. For months now I've reading constant references to the adage' Show, don't tell'. Your post here clarifies the meaning for me, as well as expounding upon some of the more subtle nuances in this not-to-be-ignored rule of writing! Now excuse me while I pull out my wip and start by deleting the tell tags. Great post. Thank you!

    1. Edith --
      Yay! Now you have clarity. Hope you had fun nixing Telling Tags!

  27. Hi Margie, Thoroughly enjoying lurking in your class. It's another keeper. I definitely plan to sign up for "Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts" in August." Cheers, Ashley

  28. Hi Margie! Loved Immersion in April. And what a beautiful place! Loved Margie-ville totally.
    Wonderfully clear examples from Callene and Lori. And congrats, Laura, for the "outing" of Sweet Spot.

    1. Hey Bron!
      I loved Immersion with you! Thank you for making that L-O-N-G flight from New Zealand!
      Hope you can come back again sometime.

  29. Margie,this is so good. It's so hard to exorcise those telling tags.Is this writer insecurity talking? Thanks for breaking down Laura's prose, too. I will mark my copy when it comes. 🙂

  30. Margie, I've been reading some Harlequin Heartwarming novels because I write "sweet romance." I was troubled by the last book I picked up that it was all narration until page 14 when there was some dialogue. In re-reading the narration, I find that it is very descriptive, but can it really be showing if it's all in narration? The most recent original publication date I found in the six books I bought is 2007; the oldest 2002. These are being republished as 2011 with a new name.

    1. How could I have forgotten to add that I hope Harlequin Heartwarming is ready for some "fresh" show don't tell that Margie teaches. I completed May 2013 Immersion Class and found that applying even more of Margie's techniques pumped up my writing. It was a fabulous class. Thanks so much, Margie!

  31. Awww, Margie, you are the bomb. Replacing "Show, don't tell" with "Where's the visual?" is clarifying, empowering, and cool. Thanks.

  32. Hi Margie!
    Every time I read one of your posts, or take a class, I learn new and amazing things. I'm excited about Visceral Rules: Beyond Hammering Hearts. I'm so there! Hope to see you at Nationals.

  33. Hi Margie!
    I have attended your workshops at different RMFW conferences through the years. It's been great to see you there!
    As a psycholicial-thriller writer, I find it a challenge sometimes to make my writing fresh, but I am really enjoying the enthusiasm I am seeing here and the changes above. It's inspiring.
    One thing that has really helped my show vs. tell writing is the POV. Some of my antagonist chapters are (objective) omniscient. There is really no way to "tell" anything because the scope is never inside the character's head. Sort of like the fly on the wall. Difficult POV to work in, but for what I'm writing, it's really effective. If he gets angry I am forced to show his anger in some way. This has helped me with the other chapters which are 3rd limited, deep POV. Your way of show vs tell seems much easier though! Lol.

  34. Thank you for this great post! Asking "Where's the visual?" - helps so much! I like the before and after examples.

  35. I usually do a pretty good job with showing, but some telling still slips through that has to be pointed out to me. And then I cringe. I love examples that help ideas sink into my brain, and yours were spot on. The "What's the Visual" question packs a huge punch - I"m posting it above my desk. Thanks!

  36. This was wonderful, so much information for a blog post 🙂 Margie came to my RWA chapter retreat this year and my writing has changed. Great tips that help every level of writer.

  37. Lol. Definitely a huge help Margie. I now have "What's the Visual" on my writing desk and on a neon pink post it flag in my notebook.

    While I intellectually understood show don't tell, in one blog post you have captured the essence in such a concrete way it actually is a little embarrassing how much
    I struggle with it.











    ALL SMILES.....................MARGIE

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