I hope this blog post finds you all having a great summer in our new normal. Today I am thrilled to have Beth Anderson as our featured guest. As you know, she is an accomplished writer focusing on narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books. Her quote “Writing is Mining” holds such truth. She describes writing in these genres as digging for those special memories, emotions, and meaning. Beth has wonderful strategies for showing in these areas.
TS: Beth, thank you so much for being our guest today and congratulations on your October release of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?
BA: Thank you so much for inviting me to share some thoughts on the essential “show vs. tell.”
I believe in action wherever it makes sense – the more the better. Keeping the characters active keeps the reader turning pages. Actions reveal character so it’s a huge part of the emotional arc. But there also has to be the flow in and out, along with weaving in needed context. Constant action for the sake of action is exhausting!
Scenes carry the emotional arc of the main character as well as the plot. They move the story forward, stepping-stones in the character’s transformation that build to the story’s end. If a scene doesn’t serve that purpose, then it needs to go or be revised to carry a piece of the emotional arc. Sometimes, even “internal” scenes can be active. Here’s an example from Lizzie Demands a Seat with the additional challenge of required context:
She eyed empty seats. Despite being born a “free black” in a “free state,” she’d never been treated as equal. She’d been rejected, restricted, and refused by schools, restaurants, and theaters. Suddenly late-for-church wasn’t as important as late-for-equality. Lizzie stood firm.
Finally, the driver held up the reins. “We need to go.”
Scenes play out best with action, and if you can use action to transition between scenes, do that, too. “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, releasing Oct. 13, was a huge challenge regarding transitions between scenes. There was so little information on James Kelly’s days in the NYC subway, all I had were anecdotes with the potential to be priceless scenes. I had to find a way to organize them with a special “heart” thread and effectively transition between scenes to avoid an “episodic” feel. Here’s an example of an active transition that lets us pause with the character and progress to the next scene:
“Exhausted, he paused and peered through the crowd gathered at the movie poster. Even superheroes needed help.”
And here’s an example from An Inconvenient Alphabet where I used imagery to actively transition. Instead of saying that Noah Webster wanted to reform American English spelling, it became:
“Armed with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet everyone knew and loved, Noah launched a spelling revolution—ready to turn “rong” spelling into “rite.””
Sensory elements enrich the reading experience by inviting readers into the moment, immersing them in the setting, and connecting readers to characters on multiple levels. As you will see in “Smelly” Kelly’s story, I use sensory elements liberally!
TS: Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?
I use the online thesaurus a lot. If you can find just the right word, it can make an illustration note or other words unnecessary. For instance, recently I replaced “took” with “claimed.” It made a huge difference—adding attitude.
I can’t resist onomatopoeia. But besides sounds, I also ask myself – What would that look like? In “Smelly” Kelly, there are lots of stinks. Instead of trying to describe the stink in the New Yorker Hotel, it was more fun to show the reaction to the smell.
“Maids pinched their noses. Guests fled. Engineers analyzed and pondered, but they couldn’t figure out where the leak was coming from.”
I also try to “show” emotions, especially what cannot be shown easily by an illustrator. When Kelly realizes he’s not doing enough, I tried to show that feeling of inadequacy:
A broken steam line blasted water pipes.
Kelly shook his head. Someone could’ve been burned. Sniffing wasn’t enough. He needed to listen, to hear sounds no one else heard.
There’s some physical movement there, but mostly I take you inside Kelly’s head. And that’s another powerful way to achieve more showing. Many writers call it psychic distance. Once I learned about it, my writing changed and became more immediate. The example above doesn’t say “he thought” or “he scolded himself” or “he realized.” Cutting the “head verbs” eliminates that filter between the reader and the character. It’s like the difference between indirect speech (He told me to stop.) and direct speech (STOP!). If you go straight to the words or realization or thought, the reader feels it as the character, and it eliminates the “telling.”
TS: Would you like to share an example of a before and after where you needed to show more and found the right words to paint the image for the reader?
BA: Sure! I looked back at an early version of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses. Here’s one line that was very “telling”:
“He settled into an apartment and took a job with the subway.”
Because that involved an action (took a job in the subway) that set off the whole story, I needed to show motivation and the emotion behind that decision. It evolved into a scene with “showing” and delightful illustrations:
James set out to find a job, but, as always, his incredible nose proved troublesome.
He felt a rumble below the sidewalk and peered through the grate. The damp air bristled with mystery.
TS: Writing is about balance. How do you know you’ve got it just right? What tips or suggestions do you have for writers in terms of striving for that balance of showing versus telling?
BA: Generally, I think showing appears in scenes and telling in transitions. Emotion and important action pieces require showing. That’s what keeps your story alive, where you want the reader to connect. Telling can speed up the narrative to get to the good stuff, but too much can bog it down. Showing and telling are intertwined with pacing, characterization, and point of view. It’s truly a complicated dance. When I researched to prepare a presentation on point of view and really examined how it works in a picture book, I found that the “camera” goes in and out—and that in and out is achieved with showing and telling, and also involves “proximity.” Just another reason to read and analyze LOTS of books!
TS: Wow, Beth! You have given so much to think about. Your knowledge and command over the elements are so strong and comes through your writing vividly. Thank you!
Beth Anderson, author of Lizzie Demands a Seat, An Inconvenient Alphabet, and “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions. A former educator who has always marveled at the power of books, she hopes that voices from the past will help children discover their own. Beth has more historical gems on the way!
Learn more about Beth and her amazing books at:
Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram: @Bandersonwriter
signed copies of books available from Old Firehouse Books