Thursday, March 10, 2011

Harry Potter + My Son = Showing vs Telling Lesson

My seven-year-old is supposed to read 15 minutes every day. This is called homework at his school. He's in second grade. We've had luke-warm success so far with this. What I mean is that he does not go and get one of the many books available to him and just read it because he wants to know what happens next. He completely sees this as a task from school -- i.e. not fun.

Last week we agreed that he will start reading  J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book, the Sorcerer's Stone.

This time, I took a different approach. I don't care if he reads for fifteen minutes. I care about what he understands in that span of time. Don't care about the number of pages, I care about the learning that takes place. I want to hear his interpretation of what he reads. He's a very good reader--don't get me wrong. But he's a mechanical reader.

I want him to appreciate the little details that go on in writing. I want him to appreciate the magic of words.

This is what we do: He reads a couple of paragraphs and then starts explaining it to me. I must say, it is the cutest thing. He gets a bit theatrical about the whole thing. At times I just watch him trying to explain it to me.

So I do what I hope most would. I ask him, "What do you think the author's trying to tell you?" or "Why did she say that?" or "I don't understand what he means. Can you explain it to me better? With your words?"

In that, a great lesson was learned. The lesson was not for my son, but me. What stuck out was one particular line:
Professor McGonagall pulled out a lace handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes beneath her spectacles.
I asked my son, "What's happening here?"
"She's crying," he said.
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"Because she's doing what someone who's crying would do."
"But the author didn't say cry," I argued.
"But she showed me with the thing that the professor did to her face."

BINGO. This, in a nutshell, is the age-old conversation of showing vs. telling. It's really that easy.

Ms. Rowling could have said:
Professor McGonagall cried.
Boring. We got some much more color with the actual text. She uses a "lace" handkerchief, not a cowboy bandana! She dabs, no trombone honk!

Often I wonder, "Will my reader understand what I'm trying to say? Maybe I need to be obvious."

My seven-year-old got it. Anyone can get it.

I've been fairly savage about eradicating "tell" scenes when I see them. I am sure, I still have some in ACES and in my new novel. Every time I see them, like a cockroach that won't go away, I zap it.

My story is better, my writing is better, and most importantly, the reader sees the images, depth and texture that I see.

Fight the good fight!


  1. Good example, Ara. I'm also trying to go back through and get rid of telling words with regard to emotion. So in your example, we might also understand that the Professor is sad (or happy depending on the context), also without being told.

    Your son sounds so cute.

  2. Yes, exactly. It was one of those "Ah ha!" moments.

    As for my son, it's self-serving to agree with you, but I'll have to agree with you :)

  3. This is something I've been working on--really trying to push the emotion deeper with my words. It's not easy, but the end results, when I hit them, are worth the hard work.

    JK R -- amazing characterization!


  4. Ara - Great example. It's funny, because I made such an effort to be "self-taught" (translation: to do it all on my own without any help, sometimes to my benefit, sometimes to my great detriment), I did not know the phrase "show, don't tell" until probably a year or two ago. But what I always called it on my own (in fact, what I still call it) is "Giving credit to the reader." The two are really one and the same, but the question you said you sometimes find yourself asking - "Will my reader understand what I'm trying to say?" - is exactly why I always phrased it that way: Give credit to the reader. Assume they are as smart as you. They'll appreciate you for it, and you'll appreciate your manuscript for it! Great words.

  5. I agree, Christine. This is the part of the editorial magic that I love. When I write my first draft, there are a lot of similes, cliche's and "telling." But during edits, when I can replace them with the right words, everything clicks in and it feel right.

  6. JM, thanks for your comment. It's perfect, like everything else you write. "Giving credit to your reader" also releases you, the writer, to trust your ability to "show" so much more with less.

    Friends: JM's a fantastic writer and his debut novel can be pre-ordered now. Go to his site and read the first chapter, then pre-order his novel "The Great Lenore" -->

  7. I just discovered your site and so happy that I did! Love this post. JKR is definitely a master at showing emotion.

    Your son reminds me so much of my own at that age. That's when we got into Harry Potter together, and one thing my son absolutely loved about HP was finding the clues JKR hid in the text. He considered this a great game -- still does in fact!

  8. Thank you SP! I love that. In fact, I'll show a couple of the hidden clues and show them to my son. I'm certain it'll perk up his ears even more. For the first time, he's walking around the house with a book in his hand instead of his Nintendo DS :)


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