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show don’t tell

re: How Can Picture Book Readers Feel It If I Don’t Tell It?

in Picture Books by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a picture book. A reader recommended I remove the parts that say how the character feels physically when she’s scared. Here’s an example: “It looks taller than I remember. My stomach starts to hurt.” Other lines recommended for deletion: “My heart pounds just as loud.” “I swallow. My throat feels dry.” My crit group wanted more of those. I’d appreciate your experienced perspective about how to handle this to make PB stories the strongest.

Sincerely,
N

Dear N…

I understand the desire to convey a sensual experience. I generally encourage picture book writers to avoid statements that explicitly tell how the character feels. Try this: Close your eyes and imagine the sentence “It looks taller than I remember” on one page, then imagine turning the page and seeing a character looking up, up, up at the tall thing. What is that character’s body language? What is the expression on her face? Kids will “read” that body language and, with the extra help of the well-timed page turn, they’ll “feel” that uncomfortable belly sensation of being daunted without you laying the words “my stomach starts to hurt” on the page.  The beauty of telling stories via the picture book format is that the art and page turns do part of the work. So try deleting those lines to allow these tools room to tell the story with you. Tip: Think of yourself like a “straight man” in a comedy duo: You set up the jokes with your text, then let the art and page turns deliver the punch lines.

Happy writing!
The Editor

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