“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.
Showing 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. Here’s a simple example:
Iggy was a gray cat with beautiful green eyes.
Here, I’m “telling” the reader the color of Iggy and the color of his eyes. It’s a rather boring description and one that would be shown in the art, and does nothing to show Iggy’s character. Here’s a rewrite where I “show” more:
Iggy’s eyes glistened like emeralds.
I used a strong verb in “glistened” and used a simile to illustrate the color and vibrancy of Iggy’s eyes. Note, I didn’t name the color of his fur as it’s irrelevant and could be shown in the illustration. But I did note the eye color because I wanted to “show” his eyes glistening (perhaps as he watches a mouse scurry across the floor!). You get the idea!
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 Hallo-Wiener:
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 Hawaii:
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 sacred fires.
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 the moment.
Dialogue reveals 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 for 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.
Well, Schachner 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!
To see if you’re guilty of doing this (we all have been!), do a “Find” search in your manuscript of any “to be” verbs (is, was, are, were). When you find one, cut it and revise your sentence. Tip: You can also do this with “feeling” words (happy, sad, excited, etc.). Don’t “tell” us that Mary was excited. Show Mary jumping up and down, squealing!
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 readers.