Last week I spoke with fifth graders at Pine-Richland’s Eden Hall Upper Elementary school about being a writer. Later that day, I promised to share with you the advice I gave the budding authors.
I’ll work up to it because really this whole post illustrates my point, but it might not mean anything yet.
While preparing for the talk, I asked myself what makes writing and reading worthwhile to me. A common denominator seems to transcend genre and audience—a thread woven through literature from the beginning of time. And that is this: at the heart of a good book is a story that makes us feel something.
Kids are no exception. They want to feel something, too.
But how does the author do it?
Any good discussion on writing should address how to show, not tell, and so that’s what I tried to tackle. I’m getting there—bear with me.
I illustrated how a plot diagram can help kids plan their writing. To hammer home the concept, I told the kids a story in order to illustrate how to write a story.
Funny how that works.
The story is about my daughter, who was in the audience, and her Uncle Doug. Doug shares this tale with his fearful pediatric patients before they go into surgery (audience).
He tells them about the time when his brave three-year-old niece (protagonist) talked him into going on the log ride (inciting event) during our vacation in Ocean City, NJ (setting).
First, they piled into the log and floated through the western-themed attraction (exposition).
When they rumbled up the rubber conveyor belt, Uncle Doug white-knuckled the sides of the log and told her he was getting a little scared (rising action).
Right before they crested the peak at the top of the ride (climax), Uncle Doug said, “I changed my mind. I can’t do this.”
His teasing was lost on her.
Picture this wee three-year-old grabbing her uncle’s hand, more afraid for him than for herself, saying, “But Uncle Doug, you have to! You have to do this!”
(Moment of truth)
“Okay, if you say so. Let’s do it,” he said.
They survived the plunge just fine. Maybe soaked to the skin, but grateful that it was over and happy for having gone through it together (resolution). They never could have known how many times our family would recount that story or how many scared little kids would feel comforted—or at least distracted—by it.
The story is a simple one, but effective for fifth graders. I hope.
At this point in the presentation, I reminded the kids of that trick I promised to relay. How do you show and not tell in your writing? I drew on the advice of author Jeff Gerke in his book, The First Fifty Pages.
Gerke uses a filmmaker metaphor. Pretend that you are filming a movie scene (what kid wouldn’t love to imagine this?). You’re holding the camera to your eye and filming it all. You only describe what you see. You can’t see that Uncle Doug is scared. So don’t write it. That’s telling. But, you can see his white knuckles as he grabs the sides of the log. That’s what you write. That’s showing.
So, while telling them the story about my brother and my daughter braving the log ride at Ocean City, I had been “filming” the scene while it unfolded. I asked if they could visualize it all happening as if they were watching a movie. Whether they realized it or not, they were probably feeling something while I told the story because of their ability to visualize it in their imaginations.
The lightbulbs seemed to flash in their minds when the kids nodded and leaned forward. One kid up front said, “Cool, I get it.”
Gerke goes on to show how you can test a passage of writing. As you read back what you’ve written, ask yourself if the camera can see it. If it was a movie on screen, would the viewer see what was happening? If not, it’s an information dump. It’s telling. Convert it and the passage will shine.
The kids seemed to resonate with this.
Now, as Gerke explains so well, there are exceptions to this rule. He states that the writer may tell a bit, just not in the first part of the book. The first fifty pages, to be exact. Why? Because the reader doesn’t care yet. Once you grab the reader and they actually want to know the information, then you can indulge. Also according to Gerke, if the story cannot continue without certain information, that’s okay. But generally, the camera trick works.
Try it. Tell your kids to try it.
To wrap up my talk, I used a baseball analogy to explain the nebulous book publishing process. I told the kids how it takes teamwork to turn a story into a book. Boiled down to its simplest form—this involves a writer, agent, editor, and publisher. I compared the writer to the pitcher and the agent to the batter. The editor is the catcher (or umpire? I realize this analogy is flawed… roll with me), who catches the writer’s mistakes and fixes them. And the publisher is the television station who produces the exciting game—or suspenseful book.
An opportunity to speak with kids about what I love to do? It doesn’t get any better than that. It renewed my enthusiasm in writing by reminding me of the end goal. As storytellers, parents, friends, spouses—you name it—whenever we tie a topic to a relatable emotion, we connect.
Nobody came to my elementary school to share their writing advice. I sure wish they had. Don’t you agree that when we inspire a child, the world becomes a better place?
What advice do you wish someone had told your fifth grade self? What would you like to pay forward?
Gerke’s explanation of how to show, not tell is genius! So simple and so clear…thank you for sharing. I thought of a game parents could play with their kids (or anyone can play with anyone!)
The first person gives a boring sentence like “The man was sad.”
The second person has to come up with a sentence or two to show that “picture” such as…
“Frank slumped in the chair and wiped away a tear with the hem of his grimy jersey.”
Now he is a character with a story! Why is his shirt dirty? Does he live on the streets? Is he cleaning up from a flood? Did his football team just lose the big game? Now there’s a mystery and I want to know what happens next.