Friday, August 14, 2009

Show Don't Tell: Pastrami, Aunt Cissy and Pineapple-Banana Smoothies

Happy Poetry Friday!

This is the third in our series featuring back-to-school Writing Workouts especially for teachers and homeschoolers and anyone who wants to ramp up his or her writing skills.

Today the poem comes first. Why? Because I want to show you something.

What's more fun--when a friend tells you that her drippy coleslaw and pastrami sandwich is delicious? Or when she pushes the plate towards you and lets you take one big, messy bite?

I vote for a big bite myself. A writer can give you a real taste of it, too. She can if she doesn't say something boring like, "Boy, that sandwich was good!" She's got to show it in word pictures: "I took a bite of the sweet coleslaw mixed with the salty-tangy pastrami, then licked each of my fingers so not one molecule of the juice got away."

This is called Show, Don't Tell.

My aunt died this week. I could tell you how I feel. But let me show you instead:


by April Halprin Wayland

This empty space

used to be full

of Aunt Cissy.

Aunt Cissy’s great glup of a hug—tight, tight.

Her bright eyes for me, just me.

Her big laugh.

Her foaming

pineapple-banana smoothies…

in real soda fountain glasses.

Her perfume—no, her flavor.

I swear she was born

with Tabu in her pores.

Cissy in the summer

glossy with sun.

Cissy painting the ocean.

Cissy talking to Uncle Art after he died,

happy to have him over her shoulder.

Cissy laughing.

Cissy fixing our toilet,

patching the hole near the stove,

mending the satin trim of my blue blanket.

My heart

is folded in half.

My stomach

is a hard dark pellet.

My arms

don’t want to lift up.

My legs

walk slow.

This empty space

used to be

so full.

© April Halprin Wayland

Did I call her my beloved aunt, use the word sad, or say that I was weeping?

Show don’t tell is a way of inviting your reader to sit next to you on the bench as you cry, while tears run down her cheeks, too.

Show don’t tell, besides lighting up your writing, also implies great respect for your reader. In effect you’re saying, “I know you’re smart and that I don’t have to pound you over the head to tell you I'm sad—I know you will understand it viscerally.”

Writing Workout/Lesson Plan—Show, Don’t Tell
For ages 7 through adult (or younger, with individual help.)

Objective: This lesson teaches beginning writers how to make their storytelling more three dimensional and how to generate empathy in their readers. Best taught early and often.


1) Recruit three students and quietly assign each student one of the vignettes below. Ask each one in turn to pantomime their character and action without any sounds or words, so that the rest of the class can correctly guess who they are and what they are doing.

A) A very old person trying to cross a busy street.

B) A child who is furious because he or she can’t have a toy.

C) A dog who has peed on the carpet or chewed up something…and whose owner has just come home.

2) Once the class has guessed all three, ask, “What do you suppose an author means when she says to ‘show your reader, don't tell your reader’”?

During the ensuing discussion, give the following examples:

"The boy was nervous" is plain. "Sweat trickled down the boy's face. His stomach tightened into a hard knot." (from Keeper Of The Swamp by Ann Garrett) is much more interesting.

"She is old." Is ordinary. "She is hunched over, crunched up, bent, like an empty soda can" (from Girl Coming In For A Landing—my novel in poems) is more interesting.

"She was sad" is boring. "…a misty grayness crept inside her and would not go away." (from Loud Emily, by Alexis O'Neill) is infinitely more interesting!

The authors above don’t tell the reader what the character is feeling or how they look. They show it.


3) At the board, ask the whole class to help you rewrite the following examples from telling to showing:

~ Grandma was angry.

~ Emma was tired.

~ The dog was happy.

4) Now have each student write a scene—less than a page—which shows how a character feels.

5) When they are done, ask for volunteers to share their examples. Discuss wildly--enthusiastically! Open all the windows! Jump on your desk!

6) Extra credit: Come in with examples of show, don't tell from the internet, books, TV or magazines.

7) And always, always write with joy!



dancer: April Halprin Wayland


Carmela Martino said...

Wow--we TAs are having a tough time lately. I lost an uncle this week, too. Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful poem, April.

jama said...

Love your poem. Great post!!

Larissa said...

Thank you for the beautiful poem and inspiration, April.

Linda said...

This will make an excellent lesson for my middle school students. Thanks so much!

Mary Jo said...

I'm always looking for more examples of "show-don't tell" for my students. Thanks for the exercises and the beautiful poem. Aunt Cissy must be looking down on you with pride!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Thanks so much for your kind and enthusiastic comments, Mary Jo, Linda, Larissa and Jama. I was worried that attaching my feelings about my aunt to a lesson plan was exploiting her memory. But I think now that she's laughing, enjoying it all...