Friday, November 6, 2009

Show and Tell

Wednesday we had our first official meeting for the new literature club. Since all of the kids have not received their copies of Magickeepers yet, I focused on the craft of writing for this meeting.

I touched on POV (point of view) and active versus passive writing but only briefly and in their relation to SHOWING rather than TELLING.

To illustrate the concept I walked into the room and tripped over the trashcan.

I explained that a writer TELLING the scene would simply write ... A clumsy man walked into the room. Or ... A man walked into the room and tripped over the trashcan.

Neither sentence paints a picture and therefor a reader who did not witness my entrance would not be able to conjure a mental image of the scene or the character.

However, we could make the scene visual if we wrote something like... A big hairy dude strolled into our classroom with a goofy smile plastered to his face. That grin vanished when he stumbled over the trashcan. He nearly fell and crush our poor pet hamster, Fifi, but at the last second he grabbed the rail beneath the chalkboard. Sure he ended up with a mouth full of white powder but at least Fifi was spared.

It is always important for a writer to think of the reader as they write and remember they only have the information you provide them in order to paint the world you create.

Take this sentence for example.

Nick walked down the hallway.

I read it to the club and then asked them to tell me things about Nick or the hallway. Of course they had no idea of any details as I had not given them anything to build an image upon.

So next I read a sentence from Erica Kirov's Magickeepers .

Nick walked down the very long hallway with carpeting so thick that his sneakers sank down into it.

I asked the kids the same question and this time they correctly guessed that Nick was a kid. They said the word sneakers made them think so. So next I asked them about the hallway. The fact it was long made them all realize it was a business not a house and since it had thick plush carpet they correctly surmised it wasn't a hall in a school or hospital. That's when one little girl chimed in and said, "Hotels have long halls with carpets."

And sure enough that sentence takes place in the hall of a mega hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

From there I read a longer passage from Magickeepers,

Nick held his breath, half-expecting her to be eaten alive. She was underwater for a while, then suddenly shot to the surface screaming. He started toward the pool but then realized her scream was actually a squeal of laughter. A polar bear came up from beneath her and hoisted her on its shoulders. She rested her face against it's neck.

As a group we talked about Nick's fear and how we knew he was scared because of they way he held his breath and expected her to be eaten alive, yet the author never actually TOLD us he was scared.

We also discussed the fact that Nick's bravery was revealed when he stepped forward, toward the pool, rather than running away. Again Ms. Kirov did not have to TELL us Nick was brave. Instead she SHOWED us in only half a sentence.

One girl correctly pointed out that we did not know who she was from the passage. A true statement I explained though to be fair I lifted the passage from the middle of a chapter so in a normal situation the reader would know she was a character named Isabella.

However even though we didn't know her name we could surmise that she too was brave, simply for laughing while swimming with a polar bear. Also we know she trusts and cares for the bear.

I next had the kids all write a short six or seven sentences about the funniest thing their best friend, sibling, or parent had ever done. I instructed them to keep in mind that I wasn't there to witness this funny moment so they needed to write in the detail to make the scene come alive in my mind. I told them to imagine they and their pencils were video cameras capturing the moment. anything they left out would be gone forever.

The kids came up with some great stuff. I was surprised to see a few metaphors and similes as well as some great description. Sure there were some common errors, but this truly is a talented group of kids and I have a feeling by the end of the school year they are going to be cranking out some very solid writing.

I encourage any of you reading this, young or old to try this exercise. Write a funny moment and then have someone read it. Watch them as they do so. So they laugh? Grin,? Show any reaction whatsoever? Ask them details that maybe you didn't mention directly but meant to imply through your words. See if that subtle message came through. If not think about ways to improve your SHOWING technique.

Here are a few suggestions.

Use the five senses.

Let the reader know how that fresh pile of dog poo smelled. Or how it felt squished between your toes. Let the reader hear the smack of your Mom's backside when she slipped on that patch of ice. Explain how the cold sleet felt on your skin as you watched. Let them see that puff of hot air as it escape your lips into the frosty air.

Metaphor and Similes.

His heart thumped against his chest like a dryer full of shoes says more than His heart beat fast. But be careful of cliches. Sayings like Sharper than a tack have been used and said countless times and no longer invoke a reaction from the reader. Put you own spin on it that matches the tone and tempo of the writing. For example; your character drives a taxi. Have him describe a smart person by saying something like. Billy's wit was sharper than the corner at 58th and Vine. No the reader has never made that turn at 58th and Vine but nevertheless they get the meaning and it fits with the tempo of the story.

Know your audience and point of view character

This is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while showing the reader the world you are creating. If you are writing a story for 12-year-old girls and you have a scene set in a garden the things you point out will be vastly different than a story geared for 12-year-old boys, or one for forty year old men. And even more so if you uses write it from those same three different points of view.

The girl, would notice the colors, flowers and beauty, unless she was a tomboy or budding entomologist. In that case like the young boy she might notice the praying mantis or toads or earthworm. The middle aged man might notice how evenly the hedge has been cut or make note of the fact he's hate to weed the flower beds. Or maybe he would spot a pink peonies that reminded him of a first date. The point is to stay true to your character and your audience. A story for a young boy about garden gnomes wanting to take over the world is not going to be well received if you spend page after page describing the deep red color of roses or the way the dewdrops reflect the the color of the sky.

Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear them, so please drop a few lines in the comments section. Just to let me know you were here if nothing else.


  1. Travis this is great! I know your explanation of show vs tell was geared towards a younger audience, but you make it so obvious.

    I also like your examples of how writing for different audiences really affects the story. Of course I know that, but your reminder makes it much clearer in my head.

    Well done!

  2. Oh, good . . . I'm glad my sentences weren't the "do not do this" examples. ;-)

  3. I'm here! I'm going to see if my son will sit down and read through this site with me..being he is a 4th-5th grader. However, he doesn't like reading, writing or school outside of school hours, so no promises. :-)

  4. Corrie, I hope you can convince him to give it a shot. The class is mostly girls but three boys did sign up and they have been contributing a good bit in class.