Show vs. Tell: The Picture Book Version by Stacy Couch

Brrrrrrrr……I’d like to say ‘Good Friday morning’ to you all, but I cannot. It is just too brutal out there. il_340x270.707439243_psnh Somebody buy me this shirt, stat. Sorry, not sorry, Elsa. I do, however, have something for you to curl up with under your blanket while sipping a very hot beverage. The lovely Stacy Couch has sent in another essay, this time on the show versus tell conundrum all writers struggle with, this time from the picture book angle. As you recall, Stacy offered us some sound advice on developing characters right around NaNoWriMo. We’re so happy to have her back with some more writing wisdom! Show vs. Tell: The PB Version Show vs. Tell is a common problem, one you’ve probably heard of before. But it’s hard to define. In essence, you want to make the reader feel like she’s there with you, seeing and hearing what is going on, instead of explaining it to her or giving her a report. We hear about this regarding novels, especially the “info dump”: dumping a ton of background at once to explain what happened before, or what’s going on now. But it is doubly important to show and not tell in a picture book. Kids have pictures to explain much of what is happening, rendering most description, setting, and even some actions unnecessary. Instead, we get to focus on the essence of the story—what pushes it forward, and gives it its heart. Problems and Fixes So…we know telling instead of showing is a problem. We may even know we’re doing it. But how do we fix it? When the writer goes on a tangent, telling you exactly what happened, or explains what or why something is happening, that’s exposition.

  1. Problem: Exposition. When the writer goes on a tangent, telling you exactly what happened, or explains what or why something is happening, that’s exposition.

E.g.: Sophie didn’t want to punish Dinosaur, and Dinosaur didn’t want to be punished. But Dinosaur had so many problems as a baby dino, Sophie had to send Dinosaur to her room or she would act like that again. Fix: Move that plot. Often, you can omit explanations. If it’s background, nine out of ten times the reader doesn’t need to know it. But if what’s happening isn’t clear, you have to work on the dialogue, characters, plot and action. Put us in the room. E.g.: Dinosaur licked the jelly off Sophie’s [pointing] hand. “What donut?” she asked.

  1. Problem: I Feel/I Love/I’m Afraid. You want to convey emotion; but instead of telling us how the character feels, you state it. It’s the difference between saying something and doing it, like when a well-meaning husband says he loves helping out—then plops on the sofa while you cook dinner. And clean the dishes. And handle that work crisis. While taking out the trash.

E.g.: Sophie loved her dinosaur. Fix: Prove it. Don’t just say the character loves somebody. Let her show us how she feels. E.g.: Sophie hugged Dinosaur and told her to pick whatever story she wanted. Even the fairy dino book.

  1. Problem: She is/He was. Saying the character “is” or “was” something is like using “I feel”: you’re simply stating a fact. We need a little more action, a little more oomph.

E.g.: Dinosaur was hungry. Fix: Make the character DO something. Get to the meaty bits. If we can see who the character is through her words and actions, we don’t just know ABOUT her. We know her, like a friend. E.g.: Dinosaur ransacked the pantry. She tore through the cupboards. She chomped on the couch.

  1. Problem: Description. Actually, this one isn’t a problem in a novel. But in a picture book, there are pictures. Why describe something we can plainly see?

E.g.: “Oh, no!” said Sophie, as she looked miserably at the mess of donut pieces, the tiny bits of jelly all over her shoes, the pink and purple sprinkles all over the kitchen floor. Fix: Cut It Out. You may not know what the final picture will be. But you can make a dummy, a rough sketch of your book with both text and pictures. This lets you see what you need to say, and what you don’t, so you can cut, cut, cut: take out the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and any description the story can do without. E.g.:  Sophie skidded across the room with a SWISH SQUISH SPLAT.

  1. Problem: Stating the Message. We often hear you shouldn’t put a moral in your story. And I agree. It’s not fun to be told what to do. But some stories do have a message; they just don’t say it point-blank.

E.g.: Dinosaur was sorry. She shouldn’t have been so selfish. She’d buy Sophie a whole truckload of donuts the very next day. Fix: Be moral—and sneaky. Instead of stating the message, you can weave your “lesson” into the story, the characters, the plot. Which isn’t easy. It means making your character relatable and flawed, so when she changes her behavior, we want to change too. It also means no one can tell her the moral. She suffers the consequences, finds out why it pays to be good—all by herself. E.g.: She slid through the jelly. She swooped through the sprinkles. She scarfed down every crumb until…NO DONUTS LEFT. The Heart of It As writers, we explore: what a character is thinking or feeling, what happened to them before, what’s going on in the room, what is the point. Telling is one way to figure that out. But once we know every little thing about our story, we need to focus on the reader. They don’t want to be told the facts. They want to be in the story, a part of it. So focus on the heart of the story, the essential dialogue, action, conflict. Ask yourself what pushes the story forward—and won’t be seen in the pictures. Then go ahead and weed all those nasty tells out. Author Bio Stacy Couch is a picture book author and critique group leader, who is bound and determined to marry Jon Scieszka. You can find Stacy procrastinating on Twitter: @couchmine.


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Happy writing and illustrating. Stay warm!

About Susan Mannix

Susan worked as a biomedical research editor for the Department of the Navy for fourteen years and has been a member of SCBWI since 2007. She writes young adult and middle grade novels. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time doing all things horses, including attending her teenaged daughters’ many competitions. Susan lives in Maryland on a small farm with her husband, two children, an adorable black lab, two cats, and three horses.
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10 Responses to Show vs. Tell: The Picture Book Version by Stacy Couch

  1. Janet Smart says:

    Great post! I’m going to copy this for reference. It is nice to have examples to go with the rules.

  2. karadhya says:

    I agree that the examples help a lot. Thanks, Stacy! On a side note, hope the weather warms up soon over there 🙂

    • Stacy Couch says:

      Glad you found the examples helpful! And I agree, warm is GOOD. So happy…the ice melted off my car! Thanks!

  3. Aimee Isaac says:

    Thank you for including the fixes! We often hear, “show, don’t tell” but we don’t often see such clear-cut examples. This gives me a lot to think about. Fabulous post!

  4. Linda Hess says:

    Good post with solid examples to really “show” us how to do it! Thanks!

  5. Carleen M. Tjader says:

    Awesome tips! I appreciate the examples.

  6. I read each sentence twice. Really good advice.

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