Odds are you already know how important it is to “show don’t tell” in your writing. But if you’re anything like me and countless other authors out there, this advice feels vague.
You might even find yourself thinking, Yeah that sounds great, but how do I actually do it?
If you feel this way, you aren’t alone.
That’s why I’ve put together these practical rules you can use to “show don’t tell” in your children’s book.
“Show Don’t Tell” Rule #1: Show emotions. Tell facts.
The most important tool any writer can use is empathy. Empathy is the reason readers develop personal connections to the characters they’re reading about and is ultimately what keeps them interested in the story. If you want to encourage your readers to empathize with your characters, you need to show your characters’ emotions.
Take a look at this sentence, for example.
When Lily reached into the back of the fridge, she felt nothing. The cookie she had hidden behind the ketchup bottle was gone, which meant only one thing: Lily’s brother had stolen it. This made Lily mad.
Right off the bat, readers will likely relate to Lily’s situation. I mean, who hasn’t hidden their favourite snack in an effort to prevent their siblings from stealing it, right?
The problem is when the text moves into talking about Lily’s emotions. Instead of showing us what it looks like to be mad, the text simply states that Lily is mad. Because of this, readers miss out on the opportunity to deepen their empathy for Lily and strengthen their connection with her.
Let’s adjust this passage to show instead of tell:
When Lily reached into the back of the fridge, she felt nothing. The cookie she had hidden behind the ketchup bottle was gone, which meant only one thing: Lily’s brother had stolen it. Lily balled her fists and clenched her teeth. This was the last straw.
See the difference? With just a couple of concrete details, a bland statement transformed into a tangible experience.
However, you won’t want to show everything in your story — that would be overwhelming! Instead, you can lean into telling when relaying facts to the reader.
Jimmy is five years old.
For all intents and purposes, this phrase is perfectly functional. It gets the point across without dwelling on unimportant details.
Could you imagine if this small detail was portrayed using showing instead of telling?
Jimmy often has to go on his tippy toes to reach the countertops and is known to replace his ‘r’ sounds with ‘w’ sounds so that, when he means to ask "Are we there yet?" he ends up saying, "Awe we thewe yet?' instead.
Though this kind of showing may have the occasional time and place, it’s usually unnecessary and can quickly bore your reader, leaving them with no choice but to abandon your story halfway through.
This is why showing emotions and telling facts is crucial for any children’s book.
“Show Don’t Tell” Rule #2: Delegate to your dialogue.
Another way to show instead of tell in your story is to delegate showing to your dialogue. This is a great way to craft a strong sense of voice, keep your word count small, and avoid too much telling.
Here’s an example from Robert Munsch’s book Smelly Socks:
So Tina went to her grandfather and said, “Can you please take me across the river in your boat? I want to buy some really good socks.”
“The motor is not working on the boat,” said her grandfather.
“Row!” said Tina. “We can row! I will row and you can sit in the back of the boat.”
“You will row?” said her grandfather.
“YES!” said Tina. “Rowing is easy.”
In this example, we see a couple of emotions in action.
Through this dialogue, we can infer that Tina is feeling impatience mixed with some excitement. She is so impatient and excited that she doesn’t even give herself the time to form a complete sentence before speaking.
Instead of telling us, “Tina felt impatient. She was excited to go get some new socks,” this excerpt uses dialogue to show us those feelings.
As you edit your manuscript, look for areas where you can delegate showing to your dialogue, develop a strong voice, and save on your word count.
“Show Don’t Tell” Rule #3: Use narration to your advantage.
As you look for ways to show in your dialogue, remember that you can also use narration to show emotions — you don’t have to give all the work to the dialogue!
P.D. Eastman demonstrates this technique in his children’s book Are You My Mother?
After many unsuccessful attempts to find his mother, the baby bird decides that he will find his mother. The text goes on as follows:
Now the baby bird did not walk. He ran! Then he saw a car. Could that old thing be his mother? No, it could not. The baby bird did not stop. He ran on and on.
Notice how the text doesn’t simply tell us, “The baby bird was determined to find his mother,” and doesn’t rely solely on dialogue to carry the weight.
Here, Eastman uses narration to describe the baby bird’s actions as they relate to his determination. In other words, Eastman uses narration to show emotion instead of telling us about it.
Use these 3 rules to “show don’t tell” in your manuscript and you’ll end up with a stronger, more relatable manuscript that appeals to young readers.
Of course, there are also tips you can use to help identify areas in your manuscript that may need more showing instead of telling. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but they can be incredibly helpful as you go on to edit your story.
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Tip #1: Avoid Adverbs
Adverbs serve a very important purpose in the English language. They describe actions to help us better understand their meaning (e.g., quickly, very, loudly, etc.).
But in storytelling, you should almost always avoid adverbs. This is because, in many cases, adverbs signal an area of the text where you’re telling when you should show instead.
One of the most common places writers tend to plop adverbs is in dialogue tags. For example:
“No way!” said Ginny loudly.
“Are you sure we should be here right now?” Ryan whispered quietly.
“Yeah, whatever,” Taylor said lazily.
If you find yourself adding adverbs to your dialogue tags, it can be a symptom of any of these 3 things:
Problem #1: The context and dialogue themselves aren’t strong enough.
Odds are your scene doesn’t involve enough showing, so you’re relying on the adverb to “tell” and do the work for you.
Problem #2: You don’t have faith in your writing.
Maybe your writing already has enough “showing”, but you worry that the writing isn’t descriptive enough, so you toss in an adverb to make sure your ideas come across. The only problem is, this can be bothersome for the reader.
Problem #3: The writing is redundant.
Oftentimes, authors will plop adverbs in their dialogue tags when it’s completely unnecessary. Take a look at the last example. The dialogue tag reads, “Ryan whispered quietly”. But aren’t all whispers quiet? The adverb isn’t necessary.
However, adverbs can pop up in narration too. Most of the time, adverbs in narration identify a moment when you’re using a weak verb.
Nathan sat softly in the chair.
The adverb (“softly”) is only there because the verb (“sat”) isn’t descriptive enough. There are so many ways to sit, so we need the adverb to accommodate the weak verb.
Instead, you can avoid the adverb by substituting your weak verb for a stronger alternative:
Nathan plopped into the chair.
Nathan collapsed into the chair.
Nathan lowered into the chair.
Notice the difference?
Comb through your manuscript and highlight all the adverbs you see. Then, examine whether they’re absolutely necessary or if they’re indicative of a deeper problem.
Tip #2: Remove Feelings
Similar to adverbs, anytime you find the verb “to feel” or any of its variants in your manuscript, it’s time to take a closer look.
Check out these examples:
Rodney felt overwhelmed.
In this example, the word “felt” indicates a moment when an emotion is “told” instead of “shown” to the reader.
Here’s how you could rewrite this phrase:
Rodney ran his hand through his hair and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. There was so much to be done, yet so little time to do it.
Here's another example:
I feel sick.
Similar to the example above, the word “feel” is indicating a moment when the writing is “telling” when it really should be “showing”. The only difference here is that this time, it shows up in dialogue.
Here’s how I would rewrite this phrase:
Problem: I feel sick.
Solution: My tummy hurts.
See the difference?
And the last example:
Hannah would feel better if she could just get this loose tooth OUT.
At first, there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem in this example. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that “feel” is “telling” where the text could use some “showing”.
Instead of “telling” us that Hannah would feel better if her tooth finally got pulled out, the story should simply “show” us this fact when her tooth finally does get pulled out.
In other words, I would remove this sentence completely from the text and rely on the scene to do the heavy lifting.
As you’re editing, keep a keen eye out for the verb “to feel” and ask yourself if it really needs to be there.
Tip #3: Trim the Word Count
When all is said and done, are you finding yourself over the 1,000 word count for your picture book?
You might be “telling” where you don’t need to.
Take a look at this example:
Walter stared at the ocean. When the tide swept close to him, he reached out and brushed the water’s surface. He yanked his arm back into his shell.
No way, he thought. I am NOT going in there. Walter was too scared to swim in the ocean.
Oftentimes, authors will tell a fact that they’ve already shown through the scene. In this example, we can clearly see that Walter the Turtle is afraid of the water because of the way he pulls his arm back into his shell after feeling the tide.
It’s unnecessary to summarize the scene with a “telling” statement such as, “Walter was too scared to swim in the ocean.” – We already know!
Here’s what that same passage would look like after editing:
When the tide swept close to Walter, he reached out and brushed the water’s surface. He yanked his arm back into his shell.
No way, he thought. I am NOT going in there.
If you’re going over the word count time and time again, look over your manuscript and evaluate every sentence.
Ask yourself, is this sentence absolutely necessary? If it is, then keep it. If not, cut it out.
With these 6 rules and tips to guide you, you’ll turn your manuscript into a showing machine that reads well and gets the message across efficiently.