“Show, don’t tell” is a
problem with which many writers struggle. We see “SDT” scribbled in the margin
of a critiqued manuscript. But what exactly is “show don’t tell?” Simply put,
it occurs when a writer tells the
reader what’s happening in the story, rather than showing what’s happening. And this creates a problem—it makes for a
passive reading experience.
puts the reader in the moment.
Showing trusts the reader to interpret what’s happening and understand. On the
other hand, when a writer tells the
reader what is happening on the page, he’s conveying that he doesn’t trust the
reader to figure things out for himself. He’s selling the reader short. Writing
that “shows” is richer and more engaging for the reader.
How can you “show” when
you write? Here’s one trick that might help: Imagine yourself (the story
teller) as a camera, recording the scene. A camera cannot get into the head of
the characters and identify their emotions; it can only show what is happening with the action. A camera can’t say someone is sad, it can only show them being sad by their facial
expressions and body language. Imagine yourself as that camera, as you write. Here
are some other tips for how to “show”…
Be specific! Specificity
and accurate word choices make for interesting writing. Listen to how Dav
Pilkey describes Oscar in the opening of The
There once was a dog named Oscar
who was half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long.
Pilkey could have said
that Oscar was a wiener dog, or a Dachshund, but instead he found a fun and
creative way to describe him. The unique description pulls in the reader and
lets him figure out Oscar’s breed.
Writers should also
avoid telling the reader how a
character feels (which is probably the most common mistake with SDT. I believe
that 99% of the time, the words “feels” or “felt” should be deleted from a ms).
Declared emotions are vague (like the mayonnaise of writing) so think about
what your character is physically experiencing at that moment. Here’s an
example from my first book, Two Tales of
The smile left Pele’s face as a
flood of waves came up from the sea. The fires were in danger of being put out.
“No!” she cried.
What if I would have
said “Pele was shocked” instead? No doubt, I would have identified her
emotional state of mind, but I would have taken away the chance for the reader
to look at the illustration and examine Pele’s facial expression and concluded
that she was shocked. In other words, I would have cheated my reader.
Utilizing the senses
pulls the reader into the story. And try going beyond the sense of sight
(because the picture often shows what the reader would see). Listen to how I
showed Pele as she set out on her journey to find a new home in Two Tales of Hawaii:
Her canoe was trapped between the fiery
sun and the cool deep ocean. She had to find the perfect place to keep her
Here, I wanted to
convey the temperature difference that one experiences when out on the
ocean—the heat of the sun striking against the cool water—to put my reader in
character and can move the story along. Listen to how Phillip C. Stead uses
dialogue to reveal the character of Amos McGee on page two of A Sick Day for Amos McGee:
He would wind his watch and set a
pot of water to boil—saying to the sugar bowl, “A spoonful or my oatmeal,
please, and two for my teacup.”
Amos’s speech reveals
his character—he’s polite, a bit quirky in speaking to the sugar bowl, eats
healthy but enjoys a bit of sugar too (he’s not perfect!). This is also a great
example of using specific details to show his character (the watch that he has
to wind indicates he’s a bit old-fashioned and his use of a teacup—not a coffee
mug—also tells us a bit about him).
Avoid “to be” verbs
“To be or not to be?”
To me, there is no question. “To be” verbs (is,
was, are, were) weaken writing because 1) they’re passive, and 2) they tell the reader the state of things, and
in picture books, illustrations already show
the state of things. Think about this—what if Judy Schachner opened SkippyJon Jones like this?
Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat.
certainly could have chosen to start her story this way. She could have told us
how Skippyjon Jones was, but the
problem is that the illustration shows him in a bird’s nest in a tree, so
“Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat” wouldn’t be a very interesting opening.
Instead, she opened the story like this:
Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke
up with the birds.
Schachner shows us he’s a strange cat by letting
us know that he sleeps with the birds—every night!
A final caveat--in all
fairness, I should say that sometimes, “telling” is good, even necessary. Can
you imagine if a writer showed every single event in a story (especially
novels)? It would become mind-numbingly tedious to get through it! Sometimes, writers
need to summarize an event so we can move from one relevant scene to the next. However,
for writing to absolutely shine and fully engage the reader, the writer must “show”
what’s happening as much as possible, particularly in picture books and easy