A Lesson in Showing Versus Telling
Last week I started teaching the spring course in Childrens Literature for grad students in the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. We spent the first class discussing the many formats of children’s lit, and began our picture book study (we’ll move on to chapter books, middle grade and YA fiction later in the term) by reading aloud and discussing some classic and contemporary books in the genre. In the former category, we read Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Ezra Jack Keats’ Whistle for Willie. In the latter, we read Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny, by way of introduction.
Each book turned out to be a unique lesson in showing versus telling, meaning letting the art reveal as much, if not more, than the text does. We discussed at length how we knew that Madeline and her friends attended a Catholic boarding school as opposed to an orphanage, how clear it was that Max’s mother had forgiven him, where Peter and Willie lived, and how much we knew about Olivia’s and Trixie’s families without being directly told… simply by way of their actions in the story, and most of all, through the illustrations.
That night, with showing versus telling on my mind, I watched “The Artist” – Michel Hazanavicius‘ valentine to silent films that is a contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. Since the story takes place in Hollywood during the time when silent cinema was replaced by the talkies, 90% of the film is silent. (It is also shot in balck and white.) The result is not only a wonderful, uplifting film and a terrific evening’s entertainment, but an invaluable lesson in showing versus telling.
With so little dialogue – which, when it occurs, is told through title cards – the story is almost entirely conveyed through action, behavior and expression. It is a truly inspiring lesson for picture book authors, in terms of how little text is necessary to tell a story… as long as you know how to think visually, and show rather than tell. It also left me wondering how many other great silent movies might offer the same lesson.