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M.D. Spenser’s Story Craft: Show Don’t Tell

eBook children's book author M.D. Spenser
Author and journalist M.D. Spenser

M.D. Spenser is the author of the popular 36-book Shivers series and a journalist. In his new column, Story Craft, he will help you improve your writing by sharing his decades of knowledge on the craft of creating stories for children. (Learn more about M.D. Spenser here.)

Show, don’t tell

This is one of the cardinal rules of good writing for readers of any age, but what does it mean? I remember first hearing it in a writing class when I was a teenager – and not understanding it at all.

But it’s really quite simple.

Think about watching a movie: You never see a subtitle saying, “This person is sad.” Instead, you see a girl with a tear rolling down her cheek, or a boy holding his head in his hands, or someone burying his face in his pillow for hours. Each character will be sad in his or her own way.

Effective writing works the same way. Don’t say someone is poor. Show the house where he lives, where the wind blows though chinks in the wall and the only furniture is some old milk crates he scavenged from behind a supermarket.

In some sense, “show, don’t tell” is another way of advising writers to avoid relying too much on adjectives and adverbs. If you tell me the weather was “bad,” I don’t get a sense of what the weather was really like. Sentences like that are not a crime, but make sure also to show the reader what the weather was like. Instead of adjectives, use nouns and verbs: Lightning flashed, thunder boomed, rain slanted down in sheets, pelting his face and drenching his clothes.

What “Show, don’t tell” really means is paint a picture. Appeal to the senses. Movies can appeal to only two senses – sight and sound. But as a writer you can appeal to all five. A character can feel the roughness of a cabin door, smell the pancakes and syrup cooking in the morning, and taste the tang of lemonade. It is appealing to the senses –showing rather than telling – that makes for vivid writing.

Next column: Don’t talk down to kids; they can sense it.

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  1. Chris Verner Chris Verner

    Great advice, Don. Happy to see one of my favorite children’s book authors sharing your insights here. Look forward to future installments. Hope life is going well in Turkey!
    Chris Verner (author middle-grade/YA novel “Stinkfever’s Fire” )

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