Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Showing Instead of Telling in The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum

 Kirsty Applebaum, the author of one my current favourite reads 'The Middler' (definitely a 5 star rated book - read my review here), give this advice to young writers:

One of the most amazing things about story is that it has the power to skip past the time-consuming ‘learning and memorising’ part of our brain and go straight to the ‘just knowing’ part. We don’t need to pause and rewind halfway through Toy Story, for example, to work out whether Buzz Lightyear is over-confident in his flying ability, or remind ourselves that Woody is jealous of this dashing interloper. We just know. And the reason we just know is that we’ve been skilfully shown.

‘Show don’t tell’ (i.e., demonstrate rather than explain) is a rule often cited in the writing world. I don’t 100% agree - a writer should show or tell, I think, according to the effect they wish to achieve. In The Middler, however, I did try to show rather than tell, because I wanted to achieve an immediate, plunged-into-Maggie’s-world sensation for the reader. I wanted them to just know.

Take Maggie’s dad. If I was to tell you about him, I’d say he was a family man - clean, tidy and prone to becoming slightly overwhelmed in stressful situations. But I don’t say any of those things in The Middler. Instead, I show him - cooking dinner for his children, wiping the table, and stumbling over his words when confronted with difficult issues.

Middle grade readers can learn to spot this technique. For example, ask them to focus on chapter one of The Middler, where Maggie, Jed and Trig leave the house and go to school (available here: https://nosycrow.com/product/the-middler/). Can they answer some questions about the differences between the three siblings? For example: who is the least organised? Who is more careful with their possessions? Who is the most outspoken? Who is the quietest?

Next, ask them to identify exactly which parts of the text enabled them to answer to these questions. They might reply, for example, that Trig speaks up in assembly, while Maggie hardly says a word out loud through the whole chapter.

Students can then go on to show in their own writing. Ask them to make up a character of their own (or perhaps choose a character from a fairy tale) and jot down a few words to describe (or tell) what their character is like. Friendly? Mean? Easy-going? A worrier? Next, ask them to write a short piece about this character leaving the house and going to school/work, just like Maggie, Jed and Trig. BUT – no one is allowed to use the describing words they jotted down. Can they show these things, rather than tell them?

Soon they will have a deeply powerful writing technique under their belts, plunging their own readers into a whole story-world of just knowing. To infinity … and beyond!

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