Brushing Up on “Show, Don’t Tell” by @marciecolleen1

Ever try to tell someone a story only to end up saying “I guess you had to be there” when they don’t respond with the emotion you want them to?

Do you want to know why that is?

It all comes down to “show, don’t tell.”

distanceTelling keeps your readers (or listeners, in this case) at a distance. Telling merely summarizes what happened in plot points. “This happened. Then this happened. Then I said this. Then I thought that. And this is how it made me feel.”

Showing, on the other hand, allows your readers (or listeners) to experience the story. Showing paints a picture. Showing draws the reader in. Showing uses description, action, and dialogue to portray how a character is thinking and feeling and therefore, builds emotion…or heart.

Sounds easy enough, right? Then why do so many of us fail to show?

In her book Writing Picture Books, Ann Whitford Paul writes, “Too often writers don’t write the most important scenes. It’s much easier to write, ‘The two friends made up’ than to write the dialogue that allows the reader to see their feelings move from hostility to understanding. Skipping an important scene is not only lazy writing, it is poor writing.”

Wow. Ouch! No one wants to be a lazy or poor writer. So how do we get better at showing?

When I write, I visualize my story as a Pixar film or a Pixar short. After all, Pixar has been lauded for its storytelling. And I can’t argue when the movie Up had me bawling—like totally ugly crying—within the first few minutes.

So let’s look at Up as an example and see how we can use it to strengthen our showing skills. If you are unfamiliar with the movie, shame on you. But we are going to be looking at a scene which happens about twelve minutes into the movie, after the ugly cry montage, in which we are shown the current world of the protagonist, Mr. Fredrickson.

First, to tell you the emotion or heart of the scene:

clockMr. Fredrickson wakes up to his alarm clock at 6am. He is all alone. While he eats breakfast he is sad. He does a little cleaning of his house and it reminds him of his wife who passed away. Mr. Fredrickson is lost without his wife. He continues his regular routines, but things seem empty without her. And now his house, the house they shared together is surrounded by construction. The house is alone, too.

Now, how does this scene show us Mr. Fredrickson’s current mood or emotion without a voiceover telling us how he feels or what he thinks?

In a movie this is easier than in a book, but this is where you need to employ some serious visualization.

Example #1

Imagine that you are watching Pixar’s version of your story. What do you see? What is the scenery? How does the scenery somehow help understand your main character?

Telling: Mr. Frederickson wakes up to his alarm clock at 6am. He is all alone.

Showing: Mr. Frederickson wakes up to his alarm clock at 6am and reaches for his glasses purposefully getting out of bed without looking at the cold, empty, “hasn’t-been-slept-on-in-months” pillow next to his.

 See how the mention of the pillow immediately illustrates the absence of his wife? And the fact that he has kept it in the bed, but not used the pillow for his own use, indicates that he is trying to make it seem like she is still there. We, therefore, get some insight into his thoughts and feelings without a voiceover telling us, “Mr. Frederickson is sad. He misses his wife.”

Example #2

Telling: While he eats breakfast he is sad.

Showing: With a sigh, Mr. Frederickson sips his coffee and wishes the empty chair across from him would have something to say. Ellie always had a story to tell at breakfast.

 Providing more information, beyond “he is sad,” breathes life into the scene. Readers are given an insight to Mr. Frederickson’s life with Ellie, while also seeing his current life without her.

Example #3

Telling: Mr. Fredrickson is lost without his wife. He continues his regular routines, but things seem empty without her.

Showing: Mr. Frederickson looked up at the sky which was dulled by the dirt and dust of the surrounding work site. “Quite a sight, huh, Ellie?” he said loud enough to be heard over the noisy construction.

 Through his speech we learn a lot about Mr. Frederickson. He goes on to refer to the house as our house and to talk to Ellie even though she isn’t there. Do not underestimate the power of what a character says to show how they feel and what they think even if they do not come right out and say it. After all, how often do we actually say “I feel ______” in real life? Often it is what we say that allows those listening to read between the lines and determine how we are feeling and what we are thinking.

So, next time you are struggling to “show, don’t tell” remember, visualize your story as if you are watching a movie version of it. For practice, watch a Pixar short. Many of them are on YouTube. First time you watch it through, state the emotions or heart of the story in “telling” language. Then, watch it a second time through, this time paying close attention to the showing that bring all of that heart to life. Who knows, practice enough times and you might make your readers ugly cry in the first few pages—I can’t think of a better goal.

ColleenM_headshotMarcie Colleen is a former classroom teacher turned children’s author. Her forthcoming books include The Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series with Macmillan/Imprint, as well as picture books The Adventure of the Penguinaut, to be published by Scholastic, and Love, Triangle, which sold at auction in a two-book deal to Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. She is a frequent presenter at conferences for the SCBWI, as well as a faculty member for Kidlit Writing School. Her educational work in children’s literature has been recognized by School Library JournalPublisher’s Weekly, and the Children’s Book Council. To learn more about Marcie, visit http://www.thisismarciecolleen.com/ or follow @MarcieColleen1 on Twitter.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Marcie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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166 comments on “Brushing Up on “Show, Don’t Tell” by @marciecolleen1

  1. Keila Dawson says:

    I get teary eyed just thinking about Up. Great example. Thanks for the tips.

    Like

  2. Wonderful way to think of showing not telling – Pixar is indeed a master at storytelling! Now I think I need to go rewatch Up….

    Like

  3. Nicola Tapson says:

    Thank you for the fabulous advice. I loved the way you depicted the difference between showing and telling and made it a lot more understandable.

    Like

  4. Sharon Giltrow says:

    Thank you Marcie I love Pixar films I will try and apply their genius to my stories.

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  5. Love this post. I always need help with showing and not telling, and the tips you shared are excellent ones I will remember. Many thanks, Marcie!

    Like

  6. Aimee Haburjak says:

    Great comparison of show and tell! I needed this reminder,
    Thank you

    Like

  7. Kirsten Bock says:

    I love Pixar movies more than my kids!

    Like

  8. Michelle Leonard says:

    THIS! THIS! THIS! Perfect! So glad you’re a part of KLSS, Marcie!

    Like

  9. Lynne Marie says:

    Great post Marcie! I always enjoy hearing what you have to say 🙂 XOXO

    Like

  10. Kristen C.S. says:

    Light bulb moment! =)

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  11. Alice Fulgione says:

    Studying Pixar movies should be super helpful. Thanks, Marcie!

    Like

  12. Elizabeth Saba says:

    Marcie, something happened on the day your post came out and this is the hardest thing for me. The show don’t tell. I LOVE your examples. Much appreciated.

    Like

  13. donnacangelosi says:

    I took your advice about watching Pixar films after first reading this post a few days ago. Brilliant idea, Marcie! Thank you!

    Like

  14. phyllis chery says:

    Thank you for linking comments about showing to Pixar’s “UP”. I still get teary eyed when I think of the unused pillow and chair. Your illustrations help me understand the need to show – Phyllis C

    Like

  15. This reminded me of how Janet Burroway explains that in real life people rarely say what they really mean. A dialog laden with unspoken meaning offers much more tension. SNT is one of my favorite things about writing, but it is so challenging. This visualization technique is a great idea, thank you.

    Like

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