Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Show Don't Tell

by Annette Lyon

Recently I herded (uh, I mean chaperoned) a group of rather energetic second graders on a field trip to a farm. Not long after, I was asked by the teacher to come speak to the class about writing. More specifically, after she explained what she had in mind, I realized what she really wanted was the class to learn was showing instead of telling.

"Show Don't Tell" tends to be the bane of the beginning writer's existence. I remember so often in my early years when I submitted to contests and publishers that I'd get that infernal phrase scrawled across my work. And I kept thinking, "But I thought I was showing!"

So what does showing mean, really? It can mean lots and lots of things, and entire books have been written about it.

In a nutshell, telling is often plain old narrative. It's when the story is simply explained to the reader. "Joe went to the store," instead of showing what he's doing every step of the way. (He picks up his car keys, he gets into the car, starts the car, drives out of the driveway then down the road, plus how he thinks and feels about every step of the way.)

At times we need narrative to get the story clipping along to the next scene. We don't want or need to show every tiny thing. But there are times we need to show what's going on, and we need to know how to do that.

Back to my class presentation: I asked the students to tell me what we did on the field trip, and I wrote down what they said on the board. I knew what they'd give me would be the "telling" or narrative version. It looked something like this:

We got on the bus. We went to the park. We played at the park. We had lunch. We got back on the bus and went to the farm. We went to 12 stations where we learned a bunch of farm stuff. One cool thing was seeing a sheep get sheared. Oh, and a chicken squished its egg. Then we went back to the school.

Okay, so we did get one showing item: the chicken squishing its egg was a pretty good detail. The sheep wasn't too bad, but it wasn't very specific, either.

Now for showing:
I told the class to do two things—
1) add details that a movie camera would see and
2) add things that all 5 of their senses caught at the farm

The results? The second graders added showing details like this:

-Jennifer chased me at the park because she has a crush on me.
-I swung on the blue tire swing until I almost threw up.
-For lunch, my orange juice was still frozen.
-The farm smelled like cow poop.
-We ate wheat, beef jerkey, and cheese at one station.
-A big horn blew after each station so we knew when to switch.
-The mink furs were all kinds of pretty colors—and it was really soft.
-I was so cold I had goosebumps the whole time.
-I learned that my mom's makeup is made from pig guts.
-I can't get that stupid hand washing song out of my head!

And there were lots more. The students' hands were flying into the air as they got the spirit of showing instead of telling. Some told me about trying to juggle with their lunch apples. Others wanted to be sure I knew that they had smelled cow feed and how it stunk. That they liked the silly tomato puppet lady and her voice, or the sound of the humming space heater. How cool it was to see bees and honeycombs.

Suddenly the field trip that consisted of nothing but a generic park, bus, and farm had come to life with vivid, showing details.

The trick is not to beat yourself up in the rough draft stage. Let yourself tell there. Then go back and ask yourself where you can add new, specific details and where you can add more of the five senses. Sight is pretty obvious, but don't forget about hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

These were second graders, children who are seven and eight years old.

If THEY can figure out how to show and not tell, so you can you.


Stephanie Black said...

Great post, Annette.

I think one of the common "telling" traps authors fall into is introducing characters via telling instead of showing what they are like. For example: "John was an angry man who always argued with his wife", instead of showing John having an argument with his wife.

Annette Lyon said...

Absolutely. Showing through dialogue is one of my favorite things. That's another blog I plan to do soon. Great minds think alike!

Quont said...

Great article! Very entertaining way to present this information.

Ahh so this is what I always call adding depth to your writing when I'm editing and doing critiques of other people's work. If you want to make a reader feel like they are right in there with the characters then you have to write for the senses.