The word count in picture books represents valuable real estate and can’t be wasted. Each word has to work together to paint a picture, to pull in the reader, to create characters we love. With today’s picture books being no more than 500 words, writers have to use each word to its greatest potential. That’s why it's important to SHOW the reader something, instead of simply TELLING about it.
If you have another writer critique your manuscripts, you might hear them say, “Oh you really need to change this from showing to telling.” Seasoned authors understand this concept, but beginning writers might need some help getting a grasp on this idea.
I recently received a joke from a friend and thought it was the perfect example of showing not telling. It isn’t particularly applicable for children, but it should get the point across:
At the wedding reception, the photographer yelled, 'Would all the married men, please stand next to the one person who has made your life worth living.'
The bartender was almost crushed to death.
When you read this, what kind of mental image did it produce? You, the reader, didn’t have to be told that all the men rushed to stand next to the bartender. The last line gave you the information without actually saying it. That’s showing.
Showing makes us care about the character, the location, the events of the book. It builds a connection between the reader and the story. As an author, the last thing you want your readers to think is, “So what? Why should I care about this?”
When I was young, I read every book James Oliver Curwood wrote. I loved the descriptions of the characters fighting their way across the frozen tundra. Although it’s been a long time (a very long time!) ago, I still distinctly remember looking up from one book and being astounded to feel the heat of a July summer afternoon after being completely engaged with the frigid cold and blizzard in the story.
Let’s look at some examples of showing not telling concept. I’ll use some early work of mine which exemplify telling and turn it into showing.
Telling: Jasper happily chewed his bone.
Showing: With his tail furiously creating a wind storm, Jasper caught up his bone between his teeth and pranced to his bed.
Although the second sentence uses a lot more words, it gives us a more rich and defined mental image of the action. Here’s another one:
Telling: Outside, it was spring.
Showing: The sun was bright and warm. Soft breezes kissed the tips of the new green grass.
Erika Wassal had a great guest post recently on Kathy Teman’s website entitled, More Showing, Less Telling. She suggested asking yourself, “How can I prove this?” Using the examples above, I could ask, “How can I prove it was spring?” Or, “How can I prove Jasper was happy?”
As writers, we have our own mental pictures associated with our stories. It’s our job to make the reader see those pictures and immerse themselves in our story so they experience it, not just read it.