Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 2, 2014

More Showing, Less Telling

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I met Erika Wassall at the end of February at a NJSCBWI get-together in Cherry Hill, NJ. I let the writers there know how open I am to writers sending me articles I could use on my blog. Erika sent me this interesting article below for today’s post. I think you will enjoy it.

More Showing, Less Telling

Really? I mean, what’s the difference? If I say, Billy was sick, then we all know that Billy is sick, right? Isn’t that what’s important?

Why do I have to worry so much about SHOWING as opposed to TELLING the reader what my characters are doing? What difference does it REALLY make?

The best way I’ve learned it is that the difference largely comes down to… all right, so Billy is sick…. But why should I CARE??

We all know we want our readers to care about our characters. Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold with his Purple Crayon, all the way up to Katniss and down to Christopher Robin, these characters were tugging at our heartstrings even when they were just picking up a jug of honey.

One of the many ways that we do this is through the special little nuances of the way they do things. Anyone can pick up a jug of honey. But the way Winnie the Pooh does it, now THAT’s special.

We read about his sticky paws and the giant drop of honey dripping down his check. And ultimately, isn’t that why we love him?

It’s all about creating images. Ideally images that are burned into the readers brain so much that it links right to their heart.

For me, the next question was… okay, so how, exactly, do I do that?

How do I really know for sure if I’m showing rather than telling?

Via brainstorming with a few other fabulous writers over at Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 extravaganza, we came up with what is not only a great way to test if you’re showing, but is also a wonderful writing exercise.

It’s fantastically simple too. You say to yourself:

How Can I PROVE It?

So Billy is sick. But if no one TOLD me Bill was sick, how do I KNOW?

Is there snot dripping from his nose? Is there a river of sweat pouring from his temples? Is he frighteningly feverish, maddeningly mopey or curled in a cocoon under his covers?

I know personally, I FEEL more for a child curled up in bed with a snotty nose and his arms crossed in mopey madness than I do for a child who is just… sick.

I use this trick in two ways.

1) When I read over my manuscripts, I ask myself… if I wasn’t the omnipotent narrator… how would I KNOW this was true? How can I create a vivid image where I don’t even have to say the words themselves, instead the reader can SEE it.

2) As an exercise my 12×12 friends and I exchange phrases, and basically say PROVE IT!!! to each other.

Here’s an example:

Johnny hurt his knee.

If I’m looking through a window, watching Johnny play, what happens that proves to me that he hurt his knee?

Johnny crashed to the ground and rolled onto his back, clutching his knee.

Or depending on who I’m trying to portray Johnny as, maybe…

The pain shot up Johnny’s knee and filled his eyes to the brim with tears. But he gritted his teeth and picked up his hockey stick. He wasn’t going to let the other boys know he wanted to quit.

Showing and not telling is a challenge for all writers. But it can also provide some fantastic opportunities to add depth to our characters, and build that emotional connection with the reader that we all strive for.

Here’s a few for you to try. Ask yourself, how can I PROVE this? And see what you can come up with!!

Bobby hated school. 

Theresa wanted to go home. 

Puddles the Poodle couldn’t wait for his boy to get home.

Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at www.TheJerseyFarmScribe.com where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!

Thank you Erika and thanks for offering to do regular posts here on Writing and Illustrating.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. As someone new to writing the ‘show don’t tell’ saying is currently causing me major headaches… so important but so frustrating all at the same time.

  2. Terrific post with very practical recommendations, Erika. The true benefit of continuing to read web pages and blogs like this one is learning insightful tips from the pros (like those you share here) and being able to immediately apply them in my wriing today. I’m thrilled that you will be a regular contributor and look forward to your next post!!
    Janice

  3. Great post by a fellow 12er! Glad to meet you here, Erika.🙂 (Wendy smiled to prove it).

  4. This article is FANTASTIC! I am going to reference it when helping other PB writers as I critique. Thank you so much for posting it.

  5. This was very helpful. The only question I had about it was when it comes to writing picture books we are always told to keep the word count to a minimum. All your examples add to the word count. I find it very hard to “show” when I’m only allowed 500 words for the whole story. Sometimes I wonder if the marvelous Winnie the Pooh would find a publisher in today’s market.

    • My suggestion is write your picture book with all the showing, but then go back and think like an illustrator. So much can be taken out once you picture the illustrations. It used to be that writers were told to keep away from illustrator notes, but with the word count getting lower and lower, that is no longer true. Some picture books only have one word on a page and the rest is told through illustrations. So you can say Illustrator note: tears in his eyes. Why not write it both ways? Then you will be able to judge for your self which way works better.

  6. Thanks so much for a truly simple and concise post about Showing vs. Telling…GREAT SHOWING.🙂 It’s such an important element of a successful picture book…and not easily understood…but you made it so, Erika.🙂

  7. Awesome post Erika! I love the “prove it” method. Thanks for the great guest blog, Kathy!

  8. Thanks for the wonderful comments everyone!! I appreciate it!

    And I agree word count is part of the struggle!! I think all PB writers have struggled with the balance of word-count versus details. I try to practice quick showing too: “Tears flooded his eyes” instead of he cried. “Her shoulders slumped”‘ instead of she was disappointed.

    For me, the showing often becomes an important part of the movement of the story itself. But I sure feel your pain!

  9. Great post. THe little tiny details make all the difference in the world–just talking about that with Joyce Hostetter a few minutes ago. GOing to share this with my writing students. Thanks.

    • Wow Carol. What a compliment! Thank you so much!

  10. That was a wonderful post! I feel like I finally have a solid grasp on the difference of showing and telling. Looking forward to your next article!

  11. This was great Erika! Thanks Kathy for sharing Erika’s insight on an important writing lesson.

  12. This is a terrific post. Thanks, Erika, for SHOWING us how to TELL if we have it right.😎 I’ll be posting the link to this one on my blog.

  13. i love the “prove it” concept… i think it adds to the urgency of “show it”.. thanks so much!

  14. “Prove it” … so simple, so helpful! (I’m trying to think of how to prove that statement…)


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