Monday, July 22, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #23: When to Show and When to Tell

I love to SHOW.  Maybe that's why I love graphic novels so much.  I love that you get to see all the little beats in the action such as small hand gestures and glances.  It's like watching TV.  (And I love TV.)  But you can't always so that in a picture book.

Why not? you may ask.

One answer is: Because you don't always have enough space.  It takes more time and space to show a scene than to tell about it.

Here's a short scene in SHOW mode:

Here's the same scene in TELL mode:

Both of these scenes are fine.  They both give the information that Joe is curious and maybe a
little inconsiderate of other people's property, but he wasn't trying to be mean.  The big difference for me, most of the time, is that it took me 4 pages to show the whole scene and only one page to tell it.

Sometimes you only have one page.

I also like to think of SHOW like a slo-mo button.  If there's a moment that's really important, you want to slow everything down and get into the nitty-gritty of it: the things characters say, the ways they react, their thought process.  But sometimes you need to hit the fast-forward button and move the pace along, that's when I use narrative, or rather TELL.

In MONKEY ONO, I lead with a bit of narrative:

     Monkey Ono loved beach day and making plans.

I do this in order to quickly get to the first important moment of the book, which is Monkey Ono plotting his first attempt at getting to the beach.  The plan is the important nitty-gritty moment that introduces the plot and shows the kind of character Monkey Ono is.

You might say, But Julie, isn't it important to show the reader why Monkey Ono loves the beach so much?

For me, yes and no.  I don't always care about the why.  One of the early criticisms I got for Wink the Ninja Who Wanted to Be Noticed was "Why does he even want to go to ninja school in the first place?"  I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but COME ON!  Why does Wink want to go to ninja school?  Because it's AWESOME!

That said, I was able to give a little more info on why Monkey Ono loved the beach in the end papers of the book.  I filled them with photographs of Monkey Ono having a grand old time at the beach.

You can use narrative to tell the reader about a passage of time, like in Oliver Jeffer's HOW TO CATCH A STAR.

You can use narrative if your main character doesn't speak.  In Mini Grey's TRACTION MAN, the main character is an action figure and the story reads like the boy's narration of his favorite toy's adventures.

I mentioned last week that Mo Willems' Elephant & Piggie Books are pure SHOW.  Zero narration.

He can do this by having a very simple story and a book that runs 57 pages long.

I'm pretty sure that I can't get a budget for a 57 page picture book because I'm not Mo Willems.  So despite the fact that I love showing every little moment, my projects usually have to have a balance of show and tell.

There's really no right or wrong way to balance show and tell.  You have to try things, change things, look at the books you admire and analyze their balance.  You have to decide which of your moments need the slo-mo nitty-gritty time and which are moving the story along.

It's like cooking; maybe it needs a little more salt, but you won't know until you try it.

Happy writing!


Lily Cate said...

Fantastic topic!
I'm a decent writer and illustrator, but putting the two together into a picture book still gets me flummoxed. And this is why! I have a horrible time picking what to leave out :)

Thank you, Ninja!

Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Julie!
Marvelous installment, as always.
When I started to read this, I thought to myself: Wow, you can transform your workshop in a book in near future!
I like your illustrations and your examples, they stir my curiosity about your books and the other's authors.
Congratulations, most of your post make smile.


Mirka Breen said...

Good advice, nicely SHOWN and TOLD.:)
I think the SDT is one of those "rules gone amok" in critiquing and editing. It should have been "show AND tell" all along.

Leandra Wallace said...

I love getting to see peeks into PB books- I even have two out of the four! =)

Julie_c said...

Lily - I know exactly what you mean. It's a balancing game!
Lucia - it'a always so nice to hear from you. Thanks!
Mirka - I agree 100%.
Leandra - we must have similar tastes in picture books.

Anna Staniszewski said...

Great examples! And seriously, who wouldn't want to go to ninja school??