Show Don’t Tell

In narrative writing, it is difficult to shift from telling the story to showing the story. I’ve helped launch a fiction study in a couple of fifth grade classrooms this week, and we’ve decided to really focus on helping students make this shift as writers. So we made a chart with four “telling” statements:

  • She is angry.
  • He is sad.
  • I think that’s funny.
  • I am scared.

During the minilesson I asked students what gestures, expressions, words, or thoughts would show anger. I challenged them to consider how to write about someone being angry without using the word angry (or mad). The created a list that included:

  • Stomp his feet
  • Punch a pillow
  • Scream, “I hate you.”
  • Face turns red like a lollipop
  • Eyes narrow and glare
  • Clench his fists

They then moved into independent work time where they are continuing their work of planning and envisioning a possible story. I asked every student to add to the chart under one of the three other statements with a gesture, expression, words, or thoughts.

I was impressed with the list they developed. We then ended workshop with a quick write where students put their characters in action. In case they needed help getting started with a scene, I asked them to put their character out on the playground witnessing someone getting bullied. We used the chart to consider the character’s response and then students put their character in action.

We ended by opening the Author’s Chair to anyone who wanted to share a phrase or sentence of their quick write. I’m reminded how a seed of instruction, followed by conferring, and opportunity to put their learning in action makes for solid writing instruction.

As the unit progresses, we will continue to teach how to develop scenes filled with action in order to lift the level of their narrative writing. The best way to make sure our instruction is useful is for us to be writing alongside our students. And we are — both teachers and me are crafting scenes which shift from telling the reader to showing the reader. This is a hard exercise for writers of any age!