Writers: Great Books to Help You Show Not Tell

Fiction thrives on the emotional journeys of characters as much as the physical quests to hunt down murderers, slay a evil kings, or jump across galaxies to rescue survivors of an alien infestation. The way characters talk to one another can open the reader up to characters’ motivations and personalities, or it can push readers away by being boring or lackluster. Having a small library of references to stimulate your creative mind when writing can help avoid any reader engagement pitfalls.

But there are so many reference books out there, it can be dizzying trying to pick which ones to add to your inspirational collection. If you’re interested in expanding your writing with better description, plot, dialogue, and structure, read on. I’m going to share with you the books that have worked for me (as someone who never thought she’d be a writer and now has twelve published works). I’m indie all the way. Without a mentor or even a friend to bounce ideas off of in the beginning, I needed direction. These books changed everything. I hope they’ll help you too.

Master Lists for Writers
Bryn Donovan

I’ve had a lot of friends ask for ideas on improving description to engage their readers more effectively. One book I use a lot is Master Lists for Writers. Mine is full of sticky notes and dog-eared corners because I’m the messy creative type. This book has a nice selection of descriptive terms for scents and colors as well as plot ideas, character jobs, and other traits. I personally like the body language sections because sometimes it is hard to think about how to show an emotion without being repetitive. Character quirks is a section that always makes me think of people I know who have these odd habits that never really registered with me before.

I can’t tell you how many books I’ve edited and critiqued that have copious nods and head shakes. People do so much more than this. It’s critical the reader doesn’t get bored with the characters, or they’ll put the book down.

This book also has name lists and some terminology for medieval and regency times. It has plot twists, motives, goals, and tons of types of plots to study for inspiration. You can get ideas for expanding the every day dialogue so it doesn’t always have to be hi/bye and yes/no. This book is just plain chock full of useful references. If you don’t have a reference book or are looking to expand your collection, this one is fantastic as it covers a lot of topics.

We want our readers to be inspired and captivated by our stories. The best way to do this is to introduce vivid description within our narration, and keep the pages full of fresh concepts and ideas. This book is a great, general genre (how’s that for alliteration) reference book that I keep with me when I’m writing and line editing. I bought two copies of the paperback, that way I have a spare for after the first is worn out! It is worth every cent I paid for it.

I’m going to be honest. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I also sell my books solely on Amazon. But here’s a pic of my copy of the paperback books I’ve listed on this page. If you’d like to check out Master Lists for Writers, you can via the link below.

Get: Master Lists for Writers on Amazon

The Emotion Thesaurus
Angela Ackerman
Becca Puglisi

I have a few books from this collection. They’ve been particularly helpful in understanding how emotion manifests physically. It’s important to be able to conceptualize your characters’ emotional situations before writing (since their progressive arcs depend on them), and this book will help you do just that. I also have Emotion Amplifiers which dives deeper into the generic emotions we often gloss over. Sections that particularly caught my eye were those of “Cues of Acute or Long-term Pain” and “Cues of Suppressed Pain.”

Often, people express a combination of emotions that isn’t clearly defined as sad or happy or angry. They’re bored and angry, tired and drunk, sad and stressed. This collection of books has helped me open up the emotional realm of characters to make them truly reflect their reactions to the situations they’re in. If you don’t have a strong emotional reference book in your collection, check these out.


Get: The Emotion Thesaurus on Amazon

If you’d like to check out the entire seven book series, you can go here:

Writers Helping Writers Series

Writing Vivid Settings: Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors
Rayne Hall

I love this book because it dives into how light, color, and weather (among other things) affect the ambiance of a scene. It really helps you narrow down the appropriate details to create the mood that fits your genre. It touches on opening scenes, climactic scenes, and symbolism. The segments have assignments at the end, which are questions for you to think about as you’re writing. I like this because it helps you learn to ask yourself if you’re truly creating what needs to be in place for the reader to understand and connect with the story.

Get: Writing Vivid Settings on Amazon

This is just one of thirty-one books in the Writer’s Craft series. If you’d like to check out the entire series, you can visit this link:

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript
James Scott Bell

I’ve read a lot of manuscripts that have quite a bit of standard, every day dialogue that just doesn’t quite hook the reader. It’s too normal and often implied enough it doesn’t even need to be said. Having characters do interesting things is important, but the way they actively engage the reader through dialogue is going to truly show their personalities, agendas, and concerns. This book helps develop unique verbal exchanges between characters including influences like cursing, dialects, humor, and the narration around it that can influence how the dialogue is interpreted. If you struggle with having diverse or character-specific dialogue, definitely check this book out.

Get How to Write Dazzling Dialogue on Amazon

The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book
Jean Kent
Candace Shelton

This isn’t just for romance writers, though it’s amazing for you if you are! This has great body language lists for arguments, laughter, embarrassment, determination…so many ideas condensed into this little book. This has been useful for me in writing scifi as much as my romance. Even if you have a waitress flirt with an officer on his lunch break while he’s furiously trying to solve a homicide and could care less about her attempts, this book can be useful. It also has helpful lists of descriptions for eyes, faces, body types, hair, smiles/frowns, and color name ideas. This is my main go-to book each time I write. It gets me started. Then I’ll move on to my other references as I dig much deeper into the story.

For romance writers, this book is a given. It has your usual spread of body language, plus segments on attraction, embracing, and lovemaking without the erotic words. More than this, the biggest benefit has been the “after-effects” sections as I’ve called them. Toward the end of the book, you’ll find thoughts and realizations a character might have after spending the night with someone or simply falling for them. This often gets left out in romance I read. I want to know about the regrets or other thoughts characters might have, in detail. Not simply: I shouldn’t have done that, or I’m so embarrassed, or he better marry me. There’s more to the thoughts that circulate after being with someone, and this book delves into those. So if you’re a romance writer but don’t want to read explicit content, this is the book for you.

The only catch is this book comes solely in paperback. It was first published in 1984, well before ebooks were a thing. But it is honestly worth it, especially if you’re a beginning writer or a writer looking for romantic interaction inspiration.

Get: The Romance Writer’s Phrase Book on Amazon

I hope you’ve found some useful books in this collection. I sure have. I plan to write more posts with other books I’ve found useful in self-editing, publishing, legal and business, genre specifics, marketing, and the best books on writing short fiction.

It’s hard to justify forking out money for reference books when you’re trying to make money instead of spend it, I know. I’ve burned some cash with the hit and miss risks and don’t want you to have to do the same. If you’ve found a book to be particularly useful for descriptions, dialogue, emotions, or other lists, you’re welcome to add it to the comments below!

Best wishes!

-Elysia

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