Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – A New Way to Think about “Show, Don’t Tell”

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I was cruising through Chapter 12 of WRITING PICTURE BOOKS by Ann Whitford Paul thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, ‘show, don’t tell,’ we all know that old rule.” when something stopped me in my tracks. Something I’d never thought much about before. Something NEW about the ubiquitous ‘show, don’t tell’ advice that actually has changed the way I think about it.

We all know showing is more interesting to read than telling. When a writer shows, instead of tells, it brings scenes to life with vivid detail. But here’s what Ann Whitford Paul had to say:

When you tell in a general statement, the reader must imagine what your character might do. Showing instead of telling makes you, the writer, define your character and paints a full picture for the reader and listeners of what is going on. It breathes life into the scene.

Every reader brings her own set of experiences and feelings about life to a book. If you tell instead of show, you give the reader too much power in creating your character.

Imagine if Maurice Sendak had simply told us that Max was a rambunctious child. Would that be memorable? No. Instead he showed us Max’s character, with details — Max wore his wolf suit. He made mischief of one kind and another. He told his mother he would eat her up. Did Russell Hoban tell us that Frances was an inventive girl who liked to sing? No — he put us under the kitchen sink with her and let us hear her bang her homemade drum. And Eric Carle, who told us in the title that his character was very hungry, then proceeded to show us exactly how hungry that caterpillar was. Pickles and chocolate cake, anyone?

Don’t give the reader the power to define your characters. When we show the reader our characters, instead of telling the reader about them, WE get to define them.

I’ll post again next week about writing in rhyme (chapter 13) and the following week about word count (chapter 15). I’m headed to the New England SCBWI conference the first weekend of May, and that might slow me down a bit…but if you are reading along don’t let it slow you down (or maybe use the time to catch up!).

6 thoughts on “Craft Book Read-Along: Writing Picture Books – A New Way to Think about “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Your Maurice Sendak “Max” examples of showing instead of telling are perfect and just what I needed to be reminded of today as I revise my picture book manuscript. Thanks!

  2. Good examples, Carrie. They will stay with me for sure! I hadn’t thought of show, don’t tell in quite that way. It’s a powerful tool to define our own characters.

  3. I had always thought showing was important just because telling is more boring. But I really like what she said about defining our characters. How can I hope to give my characters voice if I never define them?

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