Show, Don't Tell, in Picture Books

by Penny
(Reno, NV)

Don't Tell. Show!

Don't Tell. Show!

I've always struggled with "Show, don't tell." My writers group is always on me about it. I should say that I've always tried to write adult fiction.

So this time I tried to write a picture book. AND I joined a new writers group, a CHILDREN'S book writing group. And guess what?

These new people are all over me about show, don't tell again. So clearly, I have a problem!

Frankly, I kind of thought that writing a picture book, I wouldn't have to worry about S, Don't T. I mean, isn't the illustrator responsible for the "showing"? Shouldn't I be free to "tell"?

Can someone explain?

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Show, Don't Tell, always applies
by: Steve B. (webmaster)

Penny, I worked for over a decade as a screenwriter (and I think we can agree movies are rather "illustrated"), and I can tell you that rule #1 there, too, is Show, Don't Tell.

Just because someone is providing images to go along with your words doesn't mean that the rule doesn't apply.

Expository dialogue - or expository narration - remains expository. "Honey, remember how you gave birth to our son twelve years ago," is bad dialogue, regardless of whether there are pictures to support it.

If you want to establish that a character is a mother of a twelve year old, you need to figure out a better way to do it. You can't rely on an illustrator to fix it for you!

Penny, instead of continuing to tell you what telling is, I'm going to try to show you. As soon as I post this, I'm going to send you a copy of my The (Annotated) Tale of Peter Rabbit. It's part of a creative writing package that I've made available on this site.

It is what it sounds like: an analysis from a writer's point of view of Beatrix Potter's classic. One of the things I do in it is catch at least one instance of telling. By the way, be very honored: you are the first person on the planet to read my new ebook!

Now I have a viewing recommendation for you. Go watch (and rewatch) some Austin Powers movies, and watch Wayne's World too.

One of the things Mike Myers loves to do is make fun of bad exposition, which is what Telling, Not Showing, is. In the Austin Powers movies, there's even a character named Basil Exposition, whose job it is to provide necessary information in a completely unartful manner!

If after two writing groups you're still struggling with Show, Don't Tell, I can't recommend the Myers movies highly enough. Myers will explain it to you by providing extreme examples of it! My guess is that after watching his movies, you'll be able to better catch yourself committing bad exposition, and that Show, Don't Tell will finally make complete sense to you. You might even find yourself laughing at yourself as you look at some of your old work!

(Here's some more on the power of Show, Don't Tell.)

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