Happy New Year Everyone! So excited to have Vivian Kirkfield here with us today! She has quite an exciting 2019 lined up with 3 new picture book releases as well as a trip to SCBWI’s Australia conference in February as a guest speaker. She is such an inspiration to us all and I am honored to have her share her strategies for Showing versus Telling in story writing.
TS: Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?
VK: When I read a book, I want to care about the characters. That’s what keeps me turning the pages. And I think it is no different for kids. We need to make our readers feel something, right? That’s how we know they are connecting to our characters and our stories. So that when they turn to the last page, they utter an AHHH…or an AWWW…or a HAHAHA.
And to get your readers to connect with your character and your story, you need to have action, each scene in which your character is doing something or reacting to something that was done to her…this action moves the story forward. Plus, your story needs to be alive with details, so the reader can visualize what is happening. Those are the sensory elements…the descriptive words and strong verbs that put the reader in the setting and in the scene.
“Hurry, scurry, Pippa Mouse,
Washing, scrubbing, cleaning house.”
Even the rhythmic beat of the rhyming text gives us the sense of her movement. And I don’t just say she is busy…the words show very specific actions on her part.
“Hustle, bustle, lots to do.
Pippa stirs a chicken stew.
Sets the table – all looks great.
Where’s the special Seder plate?”
“Pippa searches in a bin,
finds her missing rolling pin.
Pippa opens up a box,
filled with eighteen holey socks.”
And the words provide drama as well:
“Pippa climbs upon a chair,
stretches up – the cupboard’s bare!
Teeter-totter – hold on tight!
Weeble-wobble – what a fright!”
Throughout the rest of the story, Pippa is on the move…searching for her plate and interacting with the other animals.
But in addition to action, we get sensory details to help the readers feel they are in the scene. Like the refrain, which occurs each time she questions one of the other animals:
“Quiver, quaver, shiver, shake!
Owls make Pippa cringe and quake.”
And when she approaches the Cat, we understand how frightened she is, but she knows she needs to become the Cat’s friend in order to get information:
“Pippa, though afraid to stir,
gently strokes the velvet fur.”
She also questions the Snake who is slither-sliding by the lake. Oooh…slither-sliding…poor Pippa Mouse. And she approaches Owl who sits in leafy shade in a quiet woodland glade…sounds a bit ominous, right? With those small details, the reader gets a sense of the danger that Pippa must face. With those small details, the reader connects with Pippa and cheers her on…and that is what keeps the reader turning the pages.
TS: Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?
VK: Whether I am writing my first rough draft or polishing an old manuscript, I keep Thesaurus.com at the ready. We have a gazillion words in the English language, but sometimes, we get stuck on using the same words, over and over. To punch up your story and give it more depth and get away from simply TELLING what is happening, it’s important to use descriptive language and fresh vocabulary.
There are also books that specifically address the Show vs. Tell issue:
There are also books available that contains many examples of simile (comparing two things and using the words like or as) and metaphor (comparing two things WITHOUT using the words like or as) which are two devices that enrich the language of your story:
If you don’t like accumulating books or your bookshelves cannot take one more addition, I think many of these are available in eBook versions.
I also use mentor texts quite a lot. I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands of picture books. But I still go to the library to find ones that use strong descriptive language….and metaphor…and simile.
When I was writing FOUR OTTERS TOBOGGAN: AN ANIMAL COUNTING BOOK, I wanted to help children connect with the animals and the setting of that pristine mountain river. I wanted to help children identify with the endangered creatures to hopefully create a bond so that they would appreciate the need to preserve and protect them. But a dragonfly? How could I do that?
The book opens with one willow flycatcher whistling as dawn breaks…and then:
“TWO dragonflies dance,
ballerinas above a liquid stage”
Yes, the dragonflies are ballerinas…dancing above the water. (and this was a metaphor because I don’t use the words like or as…similes and metaphor help create pictures in a child’s mind because you are comparing something to something else that they know) Children have a familiarity with ballerinas…many little girls and boys take ballet lessons.
And later when the day is almost over (and check out the verbs that I’ve put in bold – this story also benefits from strong action words)
“A brisk wind pushes the storm clouds,
revealing the setting sun.
NINE yellow mud turtles stretch out their necks,
sunbathers soaking up the last rays
before leaving their log.”
That’s right! The turtles are sunbathers (another metaphor), stretching out their necks to soak up the sun. Kids know what it is like to go to the beach or sit out in the hot sun. They can imagine that scene so much more clearly…so much more personally, I think, just because of the language I used. I also employed alliteration, a favorite technique in picture book writing where the starting sound of the words in a phrase are the same:
Stretch out their necks, sunbathers soaking up the last rays before leaving the log
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?
VK: In SWEET DREAMS, SARAH, Sarah Goode builds one of the first cabinet beds, a precursor to the Murphy beds that became so popular more than 30 years later. But, when she tries to patent it, her application is denied. Sarah doesn’t give up. I could have said: Sarah filled out a new application and hurried down to the post office to mail it away. But I wanted the reader to understand how important this was to Sarah. Every day that went by meant someone else could steal her idea. And so, I wrote:
“Carefully she changed a word here and a sentence there, explaining more about her unique mechanism, the idea that had come to her so long ago. Slipping the paperwork and a bit of her heart into the envelope, Sarah sealed her fate and sent it off. “
A bit of her heart went into the envelope, right? And she didn’t only seal the envelope…she sealed her fate. Just a few words that create more than a picture in the reader’s mind…they create a feeling and a connection with Sarah. And I think that is what happens when you show vs. tell.
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?
VK: How do I know when I’ve got the balance between show and tell just right? Honestly, I don’t. I work on the story about it sounds and feels right. And I give it to critique buddies and then revise as per their feedback. And then give it to another set of critique buddies. But these are a few of the things that I do in my process of writing.
- So What? Years ago, at a conference, I listened to a presentation that made a big impression on me. The speaker said that we have to ask one important question – so what? Why is this a story that children will want to read? In fact, why is it a story that children should read? Are the stakes high enough that it deserves to be read? That it matters? And, are there universal truths that will strike a chord with the reader? So, I read my story and ask the question: so what? Why should a kid care about my story?
- Another thing that I do is refine the opening line. For me, the opening line is the key to my manuscript. Like a house key, it opens the door for the readers to walk into the story. I work very hard at capturing the reader’s attention with my opening line.
- I also enjoy creating a satisfying ending that almost always circles around and echoes the beginning.
- I read my story aloud. Many times. If possible, I have someone else read it aloud and I listen. I record myself on my phone or computer and listen. If I can listen to my story dozens of times and still enjoy hearing it, I think I have found a good balance. If I can listen to my story and feel a connection to the characters, I think I have found a good balance. And if I can read my story and get to the end and say AHHH or AWWW or HAHAHA, I am absolutely positively sure I have found a good balance.
And so will you all.
Writer for children – reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. She’s got a bucket list that contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing and banana-boat riding. When she is not looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books that she hopes will encourage young kids to become lovers of books and reading. She is the author of Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, Feb 2019); Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (PomegranateKids, March 2019); Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books, May 2019); Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, Spring 2020); From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2020). She lives in the quaint New Hampshire town of Amherst where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. You can visit Vivian on her website, Picture books Help Kids Soar, where she hosts the #50PreciousWords Writing Challenge every March. Or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, and just about any place people are playing with picture books.
You can connect with Vivian through the following:
Vivian’s Website: Picture Book Help Kids Soar
Vivian’s Facebook Page: Facebook.com/vivian.kirkfield
Vivian’s Twitter Page: Twitter/viviankirkfield
Vivian’s Pinterest Page: Pinterest/viviankirkfield
Vivian’s Instagram Page: Instagram/viviankirkfield
Vivian’s Linkedin Page: Linkedin/viviankirkfield
Vivian’s Books and Writing Challenges:
Thank you again Vivian for spending time with us today. We greatly appreciate your knowledge and wish you a fantastic journey this year!
See you all on our next blog post February 2nd !!