By Elizabeth Lund
When I decided to write for children, I knew I had the writing part down. I’d grown up reading voraciously. I’d always been a good writer. I’d written lots of academic papers, and I’d even written features for a weekly newspaper for a while. But by the end of my Writing for Children Certificate Program at the University of Washington, I had learned that even though I could write, that didn’t mean I knew how to tell a story.
Halfway through the course, I was proud of myself. While other students in the class were writing a chapter here, a chapter there, working on a little bit of this, a little bit of that, I was working on a novel. A whole novel. And my goal was to finish it by the end of the class. I kept plugging forward, writing that first draft. I thought it was pretty good!
In the spring I registered for the Western Washington Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Redmond, Washington. One of the things you could do back then was pay to have an agent, editor, or published author read five pages of your work. I registered early and ponied up my money for a coveted spot. I was thrilled to see I’d gotten an agent! I came to the meeting on pins and needles with excitement. I left with my heart broken. The agent was not impressed. She seemed irritated. No, she wasn’t even nice about it. I don’t even remember what she said to me, I just remember being devastated at the rejection. The hard thing is that when a little time had passed and I could hear what she had to say, I knew she was right.
The agent’s response was confirmed when, at the end of the third quarter of my class, our instructor handed back the draft of my novel. She had dutifully written comments on it throughout. And they kept saying the same thing: don’t tell us, show us.
Somehow, I had made it through the whole certificate course without understanding what was so essential to telling a story, especially for young readers, but, according to Stephen King, also for adults. Writers need to show, not tell, their readers. Show the reader the action, show the reader the character, show the reader the setting and let your reader infer the mood. Don’t tell them. It’s showing that draws the reader into your world, makes them identify with your character, and makes them want to go on the journey with you.
Not long ago I took a look at Gary Schmidt’s work. He’s one of my favorite writers for middle grade readers (8-12 years old). I sat with a highlighter and went through a chapter of his novel, The Wednesday Wars. Telling? None. Showing? Pretty much all. That’s a high bar, but it’s one I began to try to reach.
Gradually I’ve learned that the keys are sensory details and scenes. First, sensory details: what does your character see? hear? smell? taste? feel? Visual details are easy – we get those in. But what about the other senses? Not every sense needs to be evoked every time, but take a look through your chapter and see whether you have mentioned smells or sounds at all. If you haven’t, where would a smell or a sound bring us more deeply in connection with your character? Plunge us into the world.
Second, scenes. Scenes set your character in action and let us experience life right along with them. Ask yourself how you can convey information about your character or plot through a scene rather than in narration. What does your character say? What does your character do? How does your character interact with others? How does your character react? What is going through the character’s mind?
Does this mean there’s never a place for narrative summary, which is basically what telling consists of? No. But if you take a close look at the best fiction and creative non-fiction out there, it’s rare.
Learning to recognize the difference between showing and telling, and working on incorporating showing into your own writing, can go a long way to bring your writing to the next level.
Learn some solid tools in Showing in Elizabeth’s online class: Show, Don’t Tell: Make Setting, Dialogue, and Action Do the Telling for You! starting October 31, 2016.
Elizabeth Lund is an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles, focusing on the genre of Writing for Young People. She also studied at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts focusing on Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She completed a certificate at the University of Washington in Writing for Children. In learning her craft, she found that showing rather than telling was one of the hardest things to learn but one of the most exciting things to practice. She is currently revising a middle grade fantasy novel (for 8-12 year olds) called Finding Memory. In her spare time, she teaches English, hunts for agates, and is an avid reader.