Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Frog and Toad: Showing Vs. Telling

English teachers are famous for advising, "Show; don't tell!" But what does that mean?

I'll show you with examples from Harry Noden's Image Grammar (29).

Telling: Maxine is nervous.

Showing: Maxine glances at the midnight moon shadows from one side of the dark alleyway to the other, biting her nails as rivulets of perspiration soak her eyebrows.

Telling: She loved her daughter.

Showing: She kissed three-year-old Carrie softly on the cheek and tucked in the covers as Carrie slept.

Notice the word choices--glances, alleyway, biting, rivulets of perspiration, soak, kissed, tucked. Notice the pictures of nervousness and love painted without a single mention of either word.

Look at your students' writing. What do they tend to do--tell or show?  If they lean to the telling side, chances are their writing is general, bland, ho-hum. They're content to write, "It was ________!" (Fill in the blank with fun, cool, awesome, boring, or just about any other adjective.) Encourage them to include details and strong verbs, giving the reader a concrete picture. Done well, the reader will be able to infer whatever it is the writer is trying to show.

Recently, Frog and Toad helped us punctuate dialogue and experiment with synonyms. Now, for one last lesson, they're lending us some telling sentences to transform.

From Frog and Toad Are Friends:
One day in summer Frog was not feeling well.
Toad thought and thought.
Toad was getting colder and colder.
Frog and Toad sat out on the porch, feeling sad together.
They sat there, feeling happy together.
Ask students to write new sentences that do not directly mention the underlined words. For instance, how can they describe a day in summer without saying the word day or summer? How can they portray not feeling well without writing those words? To test their success, they can read their sentence(s) to someone. Can the person guess the gist of the original sentence(s)?

That accomplished, have students add pizzazz to an old writing piece with good old-fashioned showing.  It'll make English teachers around the world smile, leap, and dance. In other words, they'll be happy!

As always, share your students' best examples in the comments.

  • For more practice, feel free to use the sheet here.
  • For another showing vs. telling lesson, see this one based on Roald Dahl's Mr. Twit.

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