"Show" in Your Stories, but Sometimes it's Okay to "Tell"

"Don't tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on the broken glass."
                                                  Anton Chekhov

Learning how to “show” and not “tell” our stories seems to be one of the more challenging aspects of writing for children. We are all storytellers after all, and it’s only natural for us to want to “tell” our stories in person or on paper. When it comes to writing for children, “showing” our stories makes our stories come alive. But contrary to the common concept of “show, don’t tell,” I’ve found that it is sometimes okay to “tell.”

What is the difference between “show” and “tell?” With “show,” readers become the character. A connection is created between the reader and the character. The reader has the freedom to interpret what the character is going through, and feels the character’s emotions—his joy, his pain, his sorrow—whatever he is feeling. A book that has helped me interpret my characters’ emotions into actions is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

On the other hand, telling the story does not allow the reader to discover for themselves what the character is going through—she’s being told what is happening. Rather than the reader using her imagination and empathizing with the character, she is being told by the author what is happening to the character.

Examples of “show, don’t tell” from Jerry Jenkins’ blog:
  • Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
  • Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street.
  • Telling: Suzie was blind.
  • Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with white cane.
If you haven’t mastered “show, don’t tell,” don’t worry. Leona Brits writes, “Once you understand [show, don’t tell] and use it, there’s no going back: your writing will include it, intuitively.”

Get Rid of the Narrator 
In a fiction course I took when first learning how to write stories, my instructor would listen to one of my paragraphs and blast me with: Author Intrusion! You’re telling not showing! Get rid of the narrator!

At the time I asked myself, who is this narrator? I found out the narrator is that sneaky behind-the-scenes person who speaks up, thinking experiences the characters are having need to be “explained,” so that the reader will understand what the character is going through.

Here is what I would do. I would begin by “showing” what was happening with dialogue and action, and then in the next sentence, so that my reader would understand, I would explain what the characters were doing and saying. Needless to say, like most beginning writers, it took a while for me to rid myself of the need to “tell” my reader all about my story. I learned, though. From that uncomfortable moment with my instructor on I’ve snuffed out that sneaky narrator whenever I find her lurking in the background.

Problem solved? Not quite. I’ve written four books now, and during revision I still find “telling” sentences, though now that I've had more practice (and mind you, patience), I can spot "telling" sentences more easily.

Try Using a Pattern
Two mentor books that sit on my desk are Chris Eboch’s, You Can Write for Children, and Advanced Plotting. In the former book, Eboch suggests using a pattern that she quotes from Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon. Here is the pattern: Stimulus—reaction/emotion—thoughts—action. 
  • Stimulus: Something happens to your main character.
  • Reaction/emotion: Your character has an emotional reaction, which can be shown with dialogue, such as an exclamation or an expression; add to that a physical reaction, such as he clenches his fists or blushes. The Emotion Thesaurus is a good reference to help with giving your characters physical reactions to emotions they are experiencing.
  • Thoughts: What your character thinks about the situation, and what he decides to do about it. Action: your character acts on the decision he has made. Eboch explains that this sequence can take one sentence or several pages, as long as the character’s emotional and intellectual reactions are shown, and they lead to a decision. Also, the pattern can be varied.
Get to Know your Characters
One of the books that brought home to me how to “show,” is Creating Characters Kids Will Love, by Elaine Marie Alphin. In a nutshell, Alphin suggests:
  • Decide on a general idea of the plot.
  • Decide who your character is, his background, experiences he’s had. What is his motivation? What’s at stake? What will happen if he doesn’t succeed?
  • Decide what your character will be doing, the actions he will take in order to develop the plot.
  • Then put yourself in your character’s shoes—get into his head—and perform his actions according to who he is: a skilled third grader or a third grader who is unsure of himself.
  • Go through the series of actions he is taking, step-by-step, even trying these actions out yourself to see what they feel like.
  • Develop your scenes to show something about your character.
Here is an example of how Benjy, Alphin's twelve-year-old main character, climbed down a precarious roof, from her book The Ghost Cadet:

Benjy’s actions: His sneakers were braced against the roof’s shingles. Slowly, Benjy took one hand off the sill and gripped a lower shingle instead. Then he took a deep breath, told himself very firmly not to be afraid, and let go of the sill with his other hand. There was a bad moment when his free hand couldn’t seem to find a shingle, but Benjy made himself stay calm, and finally his damp palm slid down one row of shingles and he hooked his fingers over the next one and held tight. After that, inching his way down row by row didn’t seem so terrible. Two more paragraphs continue Benji’s climb.

In the last paragraph, we delve into Benjy’s thoughts: Why couldn’t he have been a few inches taller? Benjy cursed his height silently. Even just a couple of inches would have meant his toes might have been able to feel the bench beneath him. But wishing wouldn’t make him grow. Benjy looked down one last time and asked himself whether this was really necessary. Flexing his arms, knees, and body, he ordered himself to relax, and took a deep breath, and let go.

While writing my first book, Secret in the Stars, this example from Alphin’s book helped me “show” my story.

A Case for “Telling, not Showing” 
“Telling” is acceptable at times, when you need to fill in brief mention of necessary information. Here’s an interesting example from the first paragraph of The Red Ghost, by Marion Dane Bauer; interesting because of Dane’s use of the word “was,” normally a no-no, especially at the beginning of a story:

The doll wore red velvet. Her dress was made of red velvet, and her bonnet was, too. Both were trimmed in white lace, but the white lace only made the velvet seem more red.

As in all of Dane’s books, there is a lilt to her first paragraph in The Red Ghost that is most pleasing, appealing, and enjoyable, despite her use of the word “was.” But for writers with less experience such as moi, using “was” might not be the best choice for a book opening unless it captivates the reader right away, as Dane’s first paragraph does.

And there is the case of “Good Telling:” that “telling” is sometimes better than “showing.” In Mary Kole’s article, “How to Write Fiction: When to Tell Instead of Show,” Kole discusses how she learned about J.K. Rowling’s use of “Good Telling,” as described in a speech given by Cheryl Klein, titled, “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter.”

Klein claims that in the Harry Potter books there is a pattern of topic sentences that explains how Harry is feeling, or heralds in a change about something that could happen, rather than "showing." In chapter two of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the topic sentence explains how excited Harry is that he’s going to go to the zoo: “Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time.” The caveat is that the sentences that follow “show Harry keeping out of Dudley’s punching range and eating a dessert Dudley doesn’t want. This does a double job of showing: it makes Harry’s life seem pretty dismal, and it makes him seem like a nice kid. Without the Good Telling topic sentence, those neat details wouldn’t pack as much punch. As Klein puts it, “Sometimes readers need the plain straightforward direction of telling to elucidate the point of all that showing.”

To read Kole’s article, go to: https://kidlit.com/when-to-tell-instead-of-show/. It is well worth your time.

Then there are the children’s classics, such as The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, and The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I could be wrong, but I think the term “storybook” has been lost, at least it was in my cursory search on Google, as I tried to find examples of books that are narrated, or “told” by the author. The closest I could come was a list of classic children’s books on the website Milwaukee with Kids.We all know that these stories are among the most beloved of children’s classics such as the books I mentioned, and serve as another example of when it’s okay to “tell” a story.

For now, as a new children’s author, I plan to stick to “showing” in my stories. And with the practice I’ve had, I find that when to “show” and when to “tell” comes intuitively, just as Leona Brits predicted.

The best part? Learning the ins-and-outs of this technique will give us as children’s authors more confidence than we ever thought possible, and will make writing our treasured stories more fun to write, and fun for children, to read.
For six tips on implementing "Show, don’t Tell," go to “My Golden Rules to ‘Show Don’t Tell,’ by 
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Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher, has published over 150 articles for children and adults, several short stories for children, and her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, which is available on Amazon. Publishing credits include biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; PocketsHopscotch; and an article for Highlights for ChildrenSecret in the Mist, the second in the Abi Wunder series, is coming soon. A Packrat Holiday: Thistletoe’s Gift, and Tall Boots, Linda’s picture books, will be published soon. Follow Linda on https://www.lindawilsonauthor.com.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, great article on showing versus telling. I think that's one of the struggles for most authors. I have books by Cheryl Klein and Chris Eboch, and love all the advice Mary Kole offers for children's writers. Thanks for sharing.

deborah lyn said...

Thank you Linda for this insightful article! Showing and/or Telling is a troublesome duo. I love your description of "Author Intrusion! Get rid of the narrator!" -- "I found out the narrator is that sneaky behind-the-scenes person who speaks up, thinking experiences the characters are having need to be “explained"".

lastpg said...

Thanks, Karen and Deborah. I like once you get the hang of it you never forget it, which is I think true. But I also think even experienced authors find "telling" sentences during revision. I guess it's the storyteller in us!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Well written. Even experienced writers will find something to reconsider, to view, or to try for the first time. Way to go, @Linda Wilson! 📚🖊❤️👏👏👏👏👏

lastpg said...

Thank you, Carolyn! ❤️

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

PS: Love the cover of your book! (-: If you have a review for it that you love, you can use my #TheNewBookReview as as way to extend the exposure! Submission guidelines are at https://bit.ly/ThePlacetoRecycleBookReviews. It's free! You can also submit your own reviews for others' books. As you know, reviews are the nicest gift of all for the authors you love!

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