Please Show Me...Don't Tell Me: Writing Descriptive Setting Paragraphs

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SWBAT...write strong setting paragraphs that introduce their story characters and location by using descriptive words that reveal meaning.

Big Idea

Showing readers your story details helps them "jump" into your stories. Telling them what to think leaves them feeling uninvolved.

Creating the Purpose

10 minutes

I gather students together and read them two examples:

1) a “tell” piece The boy struggled in vain

2) a “show” piece Pulling with all his might, the boy frantically tried to dislodge himself from the barbed wire fence. He knew his mother would be sick with worry over the late hour, but was coming to realize that his efforts to free his jeans from the wires were futile. He had two choices – leave the new birthday gift on the fence or face humiliation when the sunlight brought the other children walking past old farmer John’s field.     

I ask students which one they liked better? Why? What made the difference between the two? Were they about the same topic? (SL 5.1d) (many surprisingly might think they are about different topics).

I share that the first example told them what the character felt but did not show the how and the why he felt with descriptive words and phrases. Then I say, Today you are going to learn how to use your descriptive words to show your readers your story characters, places and events in vivid, realistic ways (W 5.3d).     

Guiding the Learning

15 minutes

I put up a chart with telling and showing definitions and project the example passages. I ask students to describe what is different between both of these passages (SL 5.1d). I expect students to respond with:

telling = details are limited, word choice is boring, little descriptions used

showing = uses vivid verbs, dialogue between characters, emotions and feelings, powerful vocabulary and descriptions

I share another example of how telling something is sharing a basic sentence. I share the following sentence: “The dog was mean” and write this on the chart. I then state that showing is description that involves the readers. For exmaple, “Angry as a cougar ready for attack, the huge, black Labrador pulled back his teeth and growled menacingly. I had already ran blindly into the dark alleyway and was caught unaware. Could I leave without angering him more? Or was I doomed to an even more terrible fate? ” (W 5.5)

I ask how did your mental picture change from the first sentence to the second one? How about your feelings towards the dog or the safety of the characters? Students respond (SL 5.1d) and then I share that good writers use descriptive words, dialogue, action verbs and specific phrases to involve readers in their story details (W 5.5). Its like they take a panoramic video of everything they see, hear, smell and feel and then use their words to describe every detail (W 5.3d).    

I then tell students we are going to identify when authors use both of these in some sample passages. I have students pass out the Show Don’t Tell Worksheet. 

We do the first two together and I ask how did the show affect your feelings towards the characters and events – how did that suspense keep you interested in the story details? Connection to characters and events?  Then I have them work with partners to complete the rest of them (W5.3d, SL 5.1c).

We assess and discuss together and I document those who struggled so that I can make them a top priority with small group and individual writer’s workshop lessons


Independent Learning

20 minutes

Students get to apply their learning to the second part of the Show Don’t Tell Activity worksheet (W 5.3d). The students that struggled before meet with me in a small group and we discuss before they are released to go to work independently.

Others complete the first sections and then write their own showing sentences/ paragraphs on the final section. Here I needed to stress that they could write more than one sentence to show their readers everything that is happening at the time – had some “shopping list” sentences. Panoramic view! Show them the whole picture - sight, sound, and feeling! (W 5.3d, SL 5.5) 

Here's a video of examples of students sharing their writing (SL 5.4):

Closing the Loop

10 minutes

I have students with a partner to evaluate what their peer does well and what he/she can improve. They complete a peer evaluation worksheet so that each has a paper copy of the oral discussion notes. Here's a video of a shared discussion (RL 5.5, W5.3d, W 5.5, SL 5.1c)


I want them to have as many examples as possible to build understanding of how to create descriptive sentences that flow together in creative ways so I read them a passage from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that does a great job "showing with words" the changes in Huckleberry Finn after Widow Douglas takes him under her wing. I do this to consistently give them strong examples from literature to use a references in their own writing and to build understanding of ways that great writers use these techniques.