Show Don’t Tell
Ways with words; creating mind pictures for the reader
Mentor Text Suggestions:
- Night Noises by Mem Fox
- Widget by Lyn Rossiter McFarland
- The Painter by Peter Catalanotto
- Dad and Me by Peter Catalanotto
- Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
Mark Twain said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” In other words, show, don’t tell the reader what is happening. Instead of telling the reader that the character is happy, excited, angry, or scared, the writer should show it.
When reading aloud picture books to students, look for examples where the author shows rather than tells. For example, in Night Noises by Mem Fox, instead of telling the reader that Lily Laceby is old, Fox shows us: “Her hair was as wispy as cobwebs in ceilings. Her bones were as creaky as floorboards at midnight.”
These are the procedures I use to introduce this craft to my students:
- Introduce the show-don’t-tell technique by acting out an emotion without telling students what it is. For example, act out “angry” by using body language and describing what you are thinking or feeling without using the word “angry.” Have students guess the emotion.
- Next have students list as many emotion words as they can and call on volunteers to act out several emotions.
- When you feel that students understand this concept, have them select an emotion to write about. Have them write a sentence or two, telling the emotion (e.g., “I was so happy when my dad said we could get a puppy.”
- Have them write a second draft, showing rather than telling (e.g., “When my dad announced that we could get a puppy, I jumped off my chair and planted a kiss on his cheek!”).
In my experience teaching this technique I find that my students understand what I mean by “show, don’t tell” but they have difficulty incorporating it into their writing. To scaffold this for them, I go around the room and ask each student to tell their emotion word. As a class we collaborate to orally describe what the emotion might look like. They say that “excited” looks like “jumping up and down” or “proud” looks like “shoulders back and head held high.” Once we have done this oral practice, they find it much easier to “show” in their writing.