Recently, I began to read chapter books (younger middle grade) for research purposes. I started with books by the prolific author, Judy Blume.
I instantly observed a trend in these books. The more I read the more obvious the pattern seemed. Finally, it got to the point where my research came down to reading for the sake of noticing the trend rather than the content and how the plot is handled.
I realized then that I needed to get the question burning inside me answered before I could get back to reasonable research mode.
That’s when I decided to pose the question to Laura Backes, one of the editors of Children’s Book Insider Newsletter.
Here’s the question I posted in the chat forum in CBI Clubhouse (by the way, this site holds a wealth of information about writing for children. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should!) and Laura’s answer to it:
- Hema : Laura, as a novice to writing children’s fiction, I come across the phrase “show, don’t tell” quite a bit. However, now that I’m reading chapter books (by Judy Blume, among others), I notice that for this age group, most authors tell more than show. The narrator is usually made to give a funny account of the incidents rather than showing them. Is this the norm for this age group, or is it a case of “established authors get away with breaking rules, but not unpublished ones”? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!
- Laura Backes : Hema: Good question about “show, don’t tell.” First of all, if you’re reading novels that were written before the early 1990’s (as were many of Judy Blume’s) then there will be more telling. That’s just the older writing style. Today, editors expect authors to do more showing. And if the story is written in first person, then essentially the entire book is the narrator’s dialogue. Telling takes place more often in dialogue.
“Showing” is most important when describing a character’s traits (don’t say she’s “sweet”, show us her sweet nature through her actions), a character’s feelings (avoid phrases like “he felt sad” or “she was scared”; instead, use body language, action and dialogue), or in describing the physical aspects of a person or setting.
Ah! So, it was not the age group for which it was written, but the “age” of the book itself that dictated the style that I observed.
As Laura so rightly points out, writing style seems to have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. In the past, it was not such a no-no to just make one of the characters (or the narrator) “tell” a bit of the back story, while “showing” for the rest of the book. But, not so now!
Writers have to be extremely wary of falling into the trap of telling a story as opposed to showing it. (Hmm… does it mean that the word “story-telling” should be changed to “story-showing”?)
I’m not saying that this new trend is bad; not at all. “Showing” an incident makes it stand out better than “telling” it. This technique also makes the book better and interesting — it keeps the writing more active, even if the method itself is a little harder to master.
I began to mull over how this shift in writing has come into existence, and why it is so rooted in the publishing industry (I never noticed how this works in adult books, but I’m guessing it is about the same, but I’ll stick to children’s literature here) now.
I came up with the following reasons as to why this writing model may have become the vogue:
- Children have so many ways to entertain themselves (aka distractions): video games, T.V shows, interactive toys, and movies to just name a few. Yes, there are books, too, but they don’t figure at the top of this list for the majority of the kids. Why? Because they are the least interactive of the lot.
So, books have some stiff competition and cannot afford to be considered boring even for one page, or they’ll be set aside for better entertainment devices. One way for books to avoid being overlooked is to get as close to being interactive and sensational as possible.
- Children these days are so used to everything (toys, shows, movies) imagining things for them ready-made that they are prepared to tax themselves a little less than the previous generations by reading something and imagining it for themselves. “Showing” helps them picture what’s going on in the book a little more easily.
- From parents’ perspective, a DVD costs almost the same as a book. If a book fails to grab the attention of their child, then why not spend the same amount of money wisely on something (like the DVD) that does successfully keep the kid’s attention?
- All things considered and with the economy the way it is, agents, editors and publishers do not want to back up any book that may not have captured the imagination of a large audience, and does not promise to keep the attention span of the children and their parents for a long time.
Basically, the parameters of what makes a book “good” have changed and are evolving every day.
A couple of decades from now, we may see technological advances that we cannot even imagine today. I wonder where that leaves books?
What changes and trends in writing styles do you suppose those advancements will demand from writers?