Wednesday 4 February 2015

Show Don't Tell by Natascha Biebow

Often editors say: ‘Show – don’t tell’. 

But what does that really mean?

You know how sometimes someone tells you something funny that happened to them the other day and it sounds flat? It just isn’t as funny any more – because you really had to be there. Similarly, when writers tell readers about what is happening in the story, it is not as exciting as actually being there with the characters. 

A really great picture book story takes readers on a shared journey. If the author creates vivid scenes with strong characterization, vivid settings and an engrossing plot, readers will be so entranced in the narrative journey that they won’t want the book to end.

So how can you make readers really care about what is going on in your story? Once you have a strong premise, memorable characters and a sound plot, what you need is to tell your story so that you take your readers right into the heart of your narrative. 

Using showing . . .

Instead of telling readers that your character is sad or stuck or whatever, show them through the character’s body language, action and dialogue. 

Don’t rush, and be concise and detailed in your descriptions, transporting readers right into the heart of the scene. Create each moment, so readers can clearly imagine what is going on as if they were there too. Use:

The key to all this is to use details! Be specific. 

Picture these scenes:

It's getting late, the clouds are rolling in and the wind has picked up. Mr Bear and his family decide it's time to snuggle up inside their tent. In the following scene from Mr Bear's Holiday, Debi Gliori, doesn't tell readers what it's like in the tent. She shows us the bear family's reactions through their senses: Baby Bear can see stars through the roof (the tent has been eaten up by moths and is holey), Mrs Bear can feel the wind, and they can hear a strange noise outside . . . 

From Mr Bear's Holiday by Debi Gliori

In this scene from Lunchtime, Rebecca Cobb shows us through the little girl's body language and action that she's not at all enamoured by the idea of lunch:

From Lunchtime by Rebecca Cobb

In Don't Panic, Annika!, when the wind suddenly blows the door shut, locking Annika's family out of the house, Juliet Clare Bell doesn't tell readers that Annika is scared, she shows it: Annika's mouth opens and no words come out . . . and she clutches Moose's paws tightly.

From Don't Panic, Annika! by J Clare Bell and Jennifer E. Morris

In another example, Mouse has been trying everything he can think of to get Bear to celebrate his birthday, but Bear does not like presents, birthday cards, balloons, parties or birthdays AND he's very, very busy today (tidying the house, etc.). When Mouse sneaks a cake into Bear's house, Bonny Becker uses dialogue to show that Bear has had a change of heart, leading to a turning point in the plot:

"No one had ever made Bear a birthday cake before. 
Even so, Bear started to say, "I am very, very busy today" – 
but then he didn't. "Chocolate is my favourite," he admitted. 

From A Birthday for Bear by Bonny Becker & Kady Macdonald Denton 

Of course, in the picture book art form, author/illustrators have the advantage in that they can easily add another layer to the art of showing, conveying a level of emotion and humour in the action through the pictures. 

In this scene from Olivia Forms a Band, Ian Falconer jokes that: "... when she marched in, everyone agreed that Olivia did sound like more than one person."   (The running gag is that Olivia wants to be a whole band and her mum argues that technically a 'band' means more than one person, and sounds like one as well).

From Olivia Forms a Band by Ian Falconer
And in this climactic scene from Penguin by Polly Dunbar, the main character's dialogue and body language combine to express his frustration at the fact that the Penguin doesn't respond to anything he does. Illustrated face-on with the lion and gormless penguin, this picture beautifully shows the escalation of the plot.

From Penguin by Polly Dunbar
Remember, it is stronger if the characters do rather than just say. This is because the reader’s attention wanders if nothing engaging is going on. Long-winded narratives or explanations are boring. Readers like to come to their own conclusions, to fill in the gap. It is more intriguing to see a character show their feelings or what they desire. After all, would you rather someone told you that the Alps are beautiful or . . . 

. . . take you "hiking" so you can experience it for yourself?

Natascha Biebow
Author, Editor and Mentor

Blue Elephant Storyshaping is an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission. Check out the NEW small-group coaching courses!

Natascha is also the author of Elephants Never Forget and Is This My Nose?, editor of numerous award-winning children’s books, and Regional Advisor (Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.


Moira Butterfield said...

A great reminder, thank you. I have recently encountered inexperienced editors who have insisted on 'telling' everything - resulting in a toe-curling moral sledgehammer style and a deadly slowing down of the reading pace. So you can't say this enough in my opinion!

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks, Moira! Maybe they'll read the blog?!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE your opening sketch with the rabbits which really captures the "show don't tell" concept delightfully. Thank you for this mini-refresher on how to bring out stories alive by having our characters do rather than say and by letting the illustrations show this as well. I'll keep this in mind as I work on my story-in-progress today.

Candy Gourlay said...

Brilliant! Just brilliant!

Natascha Biebow said...

Glad you liked the rabbits - that drawing nearly didn't make the cut so I'm glad they inspired you! Once you start thinking about the 'do' rather than 'say', all kinds of ideas come to mind. If you think of an emotion and then of your characters' face, body and voice, it's a good way to conjure up more specific descriptions of what might be going on in that scene. Good luck with your story!

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks so much, Candy!

Unknown said...

A good way to make me think again about how to get inside my stories. Thank you. Clear and really helpful.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thank you, Kate! Get right into those characters minds and "shoes" – it's fun! Happy writing!

Unknown said...

right - I'm sharing this - Natascha, this is a fabulous post. And it doesn't only apply to picture books. "A really great picture book story takes readers on a shared journey."

Love the reference to the joke that is no longer funny in the telling - "You had to be there"!

Thanks - It's taken me years to get this!

Natascha Biebow said...

I'm really glad it's helped you, Sue! It's a tricky thing to get unless you can 'show' it, so if this blog post goes some way to helping people to get it, I'll be chuffed. One day the lightbulb moment happens, but even then, we are always needing to remind ourselves of this technique. Good luck with your projects!