Monday, February 28, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 3 of 5: Show, don’t tell

Part 2.

With picture books, the common writerly refrain of "show, don't tell" takes on literal meaning. One of my last editing stages with the books I write is to go through the manuscript looking for text I can cut because that info can instead be conveyed visually. Kids—we all—appreciate something more when
we figure out what is going on; that’s the result of showing.

Take this scene from a childhood favorite of mine, Humbug Witch (SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t yet know this story, blur your vision and scroll down to the Puff, the Magic Dragon section):

I suspect if I were author Lorna Balian, I would’ve at first been tempted to accompany these cheerful images with a “She’s not a witch after all!” But then I'd hopefully remind myself to trust my audience. kids don’t need to read that because they see it, and the payoff, therefore, is greater.

Another example comes from the lusciously illustrated picture book adaptation of the beloved Peter, Paul, and Mary song "Puff, The Magic Dragon."

In this closing spread, we see the ageless Puff meeting a little girl with a man looking on.

With nary a clue in the text, we (adults and kids alike) can infer that the man is the now-grown little boy of the song/book, Jackie Paper, and the girl is his daughter.

Making this all the more noteworthy, the text also doesn’t indicate that there's been a jump in time from the previous spread and the man doesn’t necessarily look like the boy in a bigger body. Readers figure out who these two characters are almost by emotion, not deduction; we want Puff and Jackie to reunite, and here we learn (decades after the song) that—at least once—they did.

Oops, maybe that merited a SPOILER ALERT, too...

(All book text and images shown in this series are copyright their respective creators.)

Part 4.


J. L. Bell said...

Lorna Balian had the advantage of being an author-illustrator, and thus could convey different information in her art and text.

I see a lot of aspiring authors fretting over how to use that storytelling technique when the business’s rules say that picture-book manuscripts shouldn’t include art notes.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

J.L., somehow I'm only now seeing this comment, and I hear you. I love when a picture book takes full advantage of the medium by leaving some of the primary storytelling to the art.

I feel a pic book manuscript can (and should) include art notes, within reason; in other words, if you write so a surprise reveal is told only through visuals, you HAVE to note that. But unless it's intrinsic to the narrative, no need to request that a character's boots be blue.