Memoir/Memory Narrative Style Advice: Show Don't Tell

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SWBAT know and/or recognize the distinction between "telling" and "showing."

Big Idea

... beginning and ending one's writing are often the most important writing skills ...

Introduction and Context

6 minutes

I’ve taught creative writing and/or essay writing my entire twenty-three year career, and one of the most difficult concepts over these many years for students to master is the art of “showing” and not telling.  I often feel that this aspect of student-writing is like irony -- one gets it or not.  Clearly kids from more literate households  can elaborate in their writing to show rather than tell.  I think it is a function of overall literacy.  The closest I can come to teaching it these many years is to  illustrate it and hope for the best!

I find that some examples help to at least conceptualize the idea.  I try to provide several -- small ones and longer ones and some media information too.

Introducing the Concept to Students

20 minutes

At the beginning of the lesson on this topic, I project several passages on the screen, as a way of beginning this rather sophisticated conversation.

The first one is borrowed from Grammar Girl -- among my favorite writers re: style.  (My other “go to” fav. is Rutgers professor and internet original Jack Lynch.)  Grammar Girl has been around as a podcast since 2006, and, recently, she has created a website called “Quick and Dirty Tips.”  (I can also recommend her print book.)

Here’s her example for changing telling into showing --

Here’s a sentence that tells:

Mr. Bobweave was a fat, ungrateful old man.

That gets the information across, but it’s boring. It simply tells the reader the basics about Mr. Bobweave.

Here’s a way to create an image of Mr. Bobweave in the reader’s mind:

Mr. Bobweave heaved himself out of the chair. As his feet spread under his apple-like frame and his arthritic knees popped and cracked in objection, he pounded the floor with his cane while cursing that dreadful girl who was late again with his coffee.

I like this example of the technique, especially because she uses the verb “heaved,” which also illustrates how students should use strong verbs.  Also, the “arthritic knees” and the “pounding cane” show his age and his anger.

After illustrating the concept in this manner, I challenge students to label a passage in their Narrative where they are “telling” and turn it in to “showing.”  (The way in which this challenge plays out is highlighted in the guided practice section to follow.)

Finally, I use two video clips to illustrate the concept, as I find this assists students to further understand.  First, I play this youtube video of a young, college student giving a speech about “texting while driving,” and, then, I play this public service announcement from Belgium.  While the first example (admittedly low on production value) is a relatively competent version of a classic college speech class “persuasive” speech it pales in comparison to the PSA from Europe -- obviously example #1 is “telling” and #2 is showing!

Guided Practice

21 minutes

After I have introduced the concept, both in print and video, I ask students to jump back into their own prose, calling up the Google Doc copy of their Memory Narrative draft.  I pace around the room asking students to use the highlighting tool to mark a passage of “telling.”  Then, I have students log out and switch seats to sit with their peer-critiquing partner (the same partner from the peer-critiquing lesson).

Once they are reseated, students then switch to one another’s drafts, and they review the highlighted passage.  Using a combination of typing in Doc comments and conversation face-to-face, they offer each other advice regarding needed changes from “telling” to “showing.”  

As the period draws to a close, I continue to ask for the partners to complete the exercise again and again until the cell rings ...