Huge blocks of description and dialogue in a story are rare. To keep a story moving, authors mix description with dialogue, and add character thoughts, and action. When all these elements are put together well the author’s words will form a “movie” inside the reader’s head, and the reader will feel like he is being shown the story, rather than told it.
Telling you that “she was angry” is not nearly as effective as showing you her anger:
“She kicked open the screen door, letting it slam against the wall as she dashed outside. Down the steps and into the yard she flew. Grabbing the first rock in her path, she hurled it back toward the house. It crashed though the living room window with an explosion of shattered glass.” (From Marion Dane Bauer’s What’s Your Story)
Beginning writers often make the mistake of telling us what their characters said and did instead of showing us through dialogue and active description. If E.B. White had told us the opening to Charlotte’s Web, he might have written it this way:
Fern was in the kitchen when she saw her father go by with an ax. She wondered what he was doing with it. Her mother told her he was going to do away with a pig that had been born too small. Fern was upset because she didn’t think a pig should be killed just because it was smaller than other pigs.
Instead, White showed us what was happening through effective use of dialogue and description:
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t know why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
The “worksheets” that follow this section will give your students some practice changing “telling” statements to “showing.” Or you can make up your own “telling” statements.
Another teaching strategy is to ask students to revise a “telling” piece of writing. You can use something you wrote, or an anonymous student sample, or something a student is currently working on and wants help revising.
Here is part of a student story a fifth grade class revised as a group:
One day George was riding his bike. A guy came up to him. He chased George into a dark alley. George rode through it fast and the man stopped to rest.
To help students revise the piece I asked questions to help them think about the elements of showing–action, description, dialogue, and character thoughts. For example: Where was George when he saw the man? What else did he see as he rode? What did the man look like? What did he do? Did he say anything? What was George thinking as the man approached him?) Here’s the class’ revision:
George pedaled into the dark alley. Off to his right he glimpsed a trash can. Crouched behind the can was a man in a short-sleeved shirt. George could see a tattoo on his arm.
Seeing George, the man held out a cigarette. “Gotta light?” he asked.
“Smoking’s bad for you,” George said. Suddenly his adrenaline began pumping. What if this guy tried to kidnap him?
Here’s another excerpt from a student story that students could practice on:
Mary opened her present quickly. She took out a doll. It was the one she’d always wanted. She thanked her parents, and happily started to play with it.
When you conference with students on their writing, point out places where they’ve “shown” something effectively. Then help them find places where they can change “telling” to “showing,” by asking questions like the ones I used above. During class sharing sessions, ask students to share excerpts from their writing (or from books they are reading), that “show.”
SHOW (don’t tell) your character’s traits and feelings!
Example: Jerry was a spoiled brat. (Main character
is Sharon, his older sister.)
ACTION/DESCRIPTION (Think VERBS! and sneaky description):
Jerry’s brown eyes NARROWED into slits. He
STAMPED his foot.
DIALOGUE: “I don’t care what you say. I want some candy
and I’m going to have it!”
THOUGHTS: Mom would have a fit if I acted like that,
Now you try it! Use ACTION/DESCRIPTION, DIALOGUE and
THOUGHTS. (Note: Thoughts should be those
of the main character only.)
- Bill was excited. (He’s going on his first fishing
trip. Bill is the main character.)
- Emily was angry. (Her older sister told her she
couldn’t come shopping with her. The main character
is Laura, the older sister.)
- Larry was jealous. (His best friend just won $1000.00
in a lottery. Larry is the main character.)
- Susan was nervous. (She’s afraid she won’t pass the
spelling test. Susan is the main character.)
- Don was a loyal friend. (Steven, his friend, has just
struck out playing baseball. Steven is the main
- Sally was smart. (She is tutoring a friend who is
having a hard time understanding a math story
problem. The main character is Fred.)
- Megan was spacy. (The teacher has just given a social
studies assignment. Megan is the main character.)
TURN TELLING STATEMENTS TO SHOWING!
(Statements are from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 6-Trait Writing curriculum)
To show: Think action (strong verbs), sensory details, dialogue, and character thoughts.
Example: The store was crowded.
I knew it would be a bad day at the grocery store when I parked my bike in the parking lot. Cars were everywhere. All the parking slots were used up. There were cars on the sidewalk, getting tickets from a smiling policeman, of course. When I walked through the automatic doors it was like a circus, or a zoo. Everyone was running to get their foods, like the earth would blow up. When I took a step, I got run over by a large woman with a full shopping cart and four children tagging along. She yelled, “Move it or lose it, Bucko!”
All I wanted was a pack of gum!
–6th grade student
More telling statements to practice on:
- Jane’s way of dressing was unusual.
- The movie was boring.
- My room needed cleaning.
- Wilbur was forgetful.
- The roller coaster ride was scary.
- Bill’s cooking was not great.
TURN TELLING PARAGRAPHS TO SHOWING!
George opened the door and told his mother he was home. She asked if he wanted a sandwich, but he didn’t because he wasn’t hungry. He wished his mother wouldn’t always be asking him to eat, because if he really wanted a sandwich, he’d make one himself.
George flung open the door and threw his backpack in the corner by the coatrack. “Mom, I’m home!” he called out.
Mom stuck her head out of the kitchen. “Do you want a baloney sandwich?” she asked.
“No, I’m not hungry right now,” George said. Why did Mom always try to get him to eat, anyway? If he wanted a sandwich he’d make one. And it wouldn’t be baloney either. It would be pepperoni and mustard!
Pick one of the paragraphs below and practice changing it from “‘telling” to “showing” by adding dialogue, action, sensory details, and character thoughts:
One day Marvin was riding his bike. A guy came up to him. He chased Marvin into a dark alley and yelled something at him. Marvin rode through fast and stopped to rest.
Mary was excited because her older sister Jan was going to take her shopping at the mall to get a new dress. Jan told Mary they would leave in a few minutes. Mary said she couldn’t find her shoes. She was worried that Jan would leave without her.
Karen told Laura she was angry with her for playing with Betty at recess. Laura had told Karen they would play tether ball together and then Laura went off with Betty instead. Karen got in trouble with the teacher for talking, instead of working on her math, but she thought it was Laura’s fault since she wouldn’t have been talking to Laura except for what happened at recess.
HOW TO “SHOW,” NOT “TELL”
- Use descriptive details. (Think: 5 senses.)
The air smelled of pine and sagebrush and juniper and dust.
The dust rose into my mouth and nose, making me sneeze.
A chipmunk chittered as a pinecone crunched under my foot.
I grabbed a jacket, and stuffed my flashlight into my pocket.
I was so sweaty, my shirt stuck to my back.
- Use action. (Think: strong verbs.)
I let go of the screen door. Ol’ Red must’ve heard it squeal, ‘cause all of a sudden he streaked by. Almost knocked me over as he pushed it open and leaped outside.
- Use dialogue and character thoughts.
And the more I thought about it, the madder I got, until finally I just sort of boiled over.
“You treat ‘Ol Red better than you treat me!” I yelled. Correcting my manners, and making me work all the time. And I hate wearing shoes. I WANT TO BE A DOG!”
HOW TO “SHOW,” NOT “TELL”
- Use descriptive details. (Think: 5 senses–Ask yourself: What do I and/or my characters see, hear, smell, taste, feel? How can I paint a picture inside readers’ heads?)
- Use action. (Think: strong verbs. Ask yourself: What are people doing?)
- Use dialogue and character thoughts. (Ask yourself: What are people saying? What’s my main character thinking?
SIGHTS are everywhere.
Use nouns in action. (e.g. Marci shoved a load of clothes inside the washing machine and set the dials.)
To produce a sound an object must move (e.g. the clatter of a garbage can rolling down the road).
Words to describe sounds: boom, bang, roar, buzz, crackle, chug, gurgle, snuffle, squish, tinkle, whistle, crunch, scrape (of a shovel).
Most of the time it is enough just to identify smells, or even list them. (e.g. The living room smelled of furniture polish, apples and camphor.)
Words to describe smells: damp, sweet, musty, rotten, acrid, sharp, perfumed, wet
Write about how it tastes (cold, sweet, bitter, sour) and how it feels in your mouth. Some “taste” words: suck, chew, spurt, crush it, sticky, sink in teeth, squeezes between teeth (mashed potatoes), bubbles burst in throat and nose (soft drink), tongue, throat, inside of cheek.
Write about how you touch things (squeeze balloons, pop bubbles, roll
clay between your palms, rub satin against your cheek, crush a wad of cotton, let sand run through your fingers. You feel snow with your nose, frost with the tips of your ears.)
Words to describe touches: prickly, rough, sharp, smooth, wet, chapped, etc.
You can combine sounds, feelings and tastes. Poets do this a lot. (e.g. What is the color of a whisper? or Heat was happy.)
Think of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches for each scene. (ie. a rainy day, a snowy morning, a windy street, a school cafeteria)
ASSIGNMENT: Pick one of the situations below and expand it into 2-3 paragraphs, adding sensory details that paint a picture of what is happening.
- Jerry was taking a spelling test. The classroom was quiet.
- Mary was camping overnight in the woods. It was scary outside.
- Susan was shopping for a new drress to wear to her brother’s wedding. It was a hot day.
- Chuck was playing in his room. He was bored.
ROLE-PLAYING A SCENE TO DEMONSTRATE “SHOW DON’T TELL”
Teacher: “This is ________.” (main character)
“She (or he) is ________.” (some emotion) Examples: excited, sad, embarrassed, angry, jealous, nervous, afraid.
“The reason she (or he) feels that way is because ______________.” (problem/situation involving one other character)
“Since ______ is our main character, we’ll show things from her point-of-view. She is the only one whose thoughts we’ll hear.”
“This is_________.” (second character) “We won’t hear her thoughts, but we’ll learn about her through what she says (dialogue) and does (action).
Main character: Dialogue
Second character: Dialogue
Main character thoughts: (muffled through styrofoam cup)
Action person: (physically describes the scene, the characters and their actions.)
Director: You, the teacher. (At least initially.) Point to the parts (Dialogue, Action, Thoughts) in the order you want them to perform. Record what happens on transparency or the chalk board. Allow role-playing characters to call on audience members (the brain cells in the head of the writer) for help whenever they need it, but insist that no one blurts out!
Adapted from an activity described in After THE END, by Barry Lane. (p.57)
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com