The other day I had a chance to meet and talk with a young, aspiring writer. It gave me the opportunity to revisit some of the essential elements of storytelling, one of which is to show versus tell. To help explain the concept I used the opening paragraphs of two Newberry award-winning novels. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan and A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck. It amazes me still to see the ease and elegance with which the two of them were able to paint such a vivid picture of what was happening to the characters by showing us the scene.
For the novel Sarah, Plain and Tall, I wrote a short paragraph telling what was happening in the story, which we read together... (Warning! Told version below. I hope you can make it through because the real version follows.)
Sarah Plain and Tall - my told version
Caleb sat in the chair by a warm fire with his dogs, Lottie and Nick. He was a curious boy. He liked to ask questions. He asked them every single day. He asked them hundreds of times. He wanted to know if Mama used to sing. He wanted to know if Papa used to sing, too.
Below are Patricia MacLachlan's opening paragraphs:
"Did Mama sing every day?" asked Caleb. "Every-single-day?" He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones.
"Every-single-day," I said for the second time this week. For the twentieth time this month. The hundredth time this year? And the past few years?
"And did Papa sing, too?"
"Yes. Papa sang, too. Don't get so close, Caleb. You'll heat up."
He pushed his chair back. It made a hollow scraping sound on the hearthstones, and the dogs stirred. Lottie, small and black, wagged her tale and lifted her head. Nick slept on.
Instantly, the student’s eyes brightened. "Did you get it? I asked.
She nodded, and I truly thought she did understand, but to bring home the point and the importance of the issue I reversed the process and read with her the opening paragraphs of Richard Peck's novel:
It was a September morning, hazy with late summer, and now with all the years between. Mother was seeing me off at Dearborn Station in Chicago. We'd come in a taxicab because of my trunk. But Mother would ride back home on the El. There wasn't much more than a nickel in her purse, and only a sandwich for the train in mine. My ticket had pretty well cleaned us out.
The trunk, a small one, had every stitch of clothes I had and two or three things of Mother's that fit me. "Try not to grow too fast," she murmured. "But anyway, skirts are shorter this year."
Then we couldn't look at each other. I was fifteen, and I'd been growing like a weed. My shoes from Easter gripped my feet.
A billboard across from the station read:
WASN’T THE DEPRESSION AWFUL?
"What do we know about the characters?" I asked her. "What did Richard Peck show us in this scene without telling us?"
"They are poor," she said. "The character is a girl. She's going to miss her mother."
"And where and when is the story set?" I asked.
"Chicago. After the Great Depression."
Yes. Yes. Yes. I think she got the concept. No. I'm quite sure she got it.
(So we talked more. About how we learn so much about the characters without being told.
In our first example, we learned that the narrator obviously has a lot of patience. Caleb is obviously a boy with an insatiable curiosity, but also one who was cooperative and willing to listen since he so quickly and easily listened when asked to move away from the fire.
In the second example we learned that the characters do not seem to be bothered at all by the fact that they do not have a lot of money or a lot of worldly goods, but instead seem to be well-adjusted. We learn of the close relationship between mother and daughter.
The scenes were set. The examples are there to learn from.) Now, like all of us, her challenge is to put the concept into practice.
Keep writing everyone. Remember. (Don't forget the basics.)
Show, don't tell.
I've included a few links below to sites that have some interesting viewpoints on show versus tell. Check them out when you get a chance.