Show, Don’t Tell

The Situation

Your students tend to tell, instead of showing the reader.

The Solution

Show, don’t tell is a classic mantra for writing. For example, Instead of saying Ethan hates going to school, a more effective and interesting piece of characterisation might be For the third day in a row, Ethan screwed up his worksheet and threw it towards the bin.

Here is how you might teach Show, don’t Tell.

  1. Have student read a short narrative text, which has a focus on characterisation. The character in question needs to be interesting and described in detail. Mrs Pratchett from Roald Dahl’s classic story is a great example to use.
  2. While students read the text, have them highlight information about the character’s appearance and behaviour.
  3. Afterwards, have students describe to you what the character looks like. Begin to draw exactly what they say. It can be comical, weird and wonderful. Make it stand out.
  4. For anything that is not described, emphasis that you as the reader are now forced to conjure up an impression of the character. You as the reader need to interpret the characters appearance and create a mental image for yourself. Begin to fill in the gaps: if students describe the character as evil, draw your impression of evil. Reinforce that this is your understanding of evil and that every person in the class has a different understanding of that word.

Here is a drawing I did for Mrs Gorf based on some limited physical descriptions, though students emphasised her evil behaviour in the classroom.

Afterwards, emphasis to students that effective writers show the personality of a character through their behaviours rather than just telling the reader what they need to know.

Sometimes, it is important to tell the reader important information, but it is equally important to allow the reader to fill in the gaps about the reader based on the behaviours of the character. We get an impression of people based on the way they behave. Important information about appearances should support the characterisation rather than just superfluous detail.

Next, provide students with their own example:

Adam loves riding his bike.

Provide your own example of show, don’t tell on the whiteboard. Encourage students to record their own before they share to a partner and the class.

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