In class last week, I showed the kiddos this video*.
When it was over and the giggles subsided, I asked them why they thought I'd shown it. (Sometimes I'll show them something with no real motivation in mind, except to see what they'll guess, but this was not one of those times).
"To show that if you wait, things get better?"
"Yeah, patience is important."
"It's like in writing, you need to keep working when you're stuck."
"You're gonna give us marshmallows?"
Since it was snack time, the kiddos' eyes shot towards the baggies of Cheez-its and containers of carrots waiting on their desks. "Can we have a hint?"
"How many words were spoken in video clip?"
"Not a lot."
"So did we know what those kids were thinking and feeling?"
"Oh yeah!" Nods of agreement, animated recounting of favorite parts.
"The way they acted. Like the kid who sniffed his marshmallow."
"And the one that licked it."
"I like the kid who won't even look at it… but he's still holding it to make sure it doesn't go anywhere."
"So, even without saying: I am impatient, you could tell how they were feeling?"
Nods and my-teacher-is-a-moron eye rolls.
"And in real life, do you need your friends to tell you that they're annoyed or scared or surprised?"
"Because you can tell from their actions and body language, right? Let's try something. Show me what you look like when you're angry."
Grimaces and giggles.
"What about surprised?"
Gasps and louder giggles.
"Hmmm, because in your narratives I'm seeing lots of I was so mad and Mom looked sad. How could you show me that instead of telling me?"
As the pieces clicked in their heads, they reached for their notebooks with eager fingers and waited for their cue to head off and write.
Before I could give it, a hand shot up: "Mrs. Schmidt, is this how you can always tell when someone needs help in class – even before they ask?"
"Exactly! You show me you're confused with your expressions and actions. And because teachers are psychic…"
We all need this reminder sometimes; it's easier to tell than show. That night I went home and checked my own new WIP for places I'd taken telling-shortcuts. And of course I found some. We all do. I found myself trying to rationalize: how many ways can there really be to show fear? Sorrow? Anticipation?
Then I thought back to the video I'd shown my class: There are 11 kids who face the marshmallow test. They each express their frustration and impatience in a unique way. Why would the characters in my story be any different?
When I eliminated the excuses and shortcuts, I found myself doing a lot more reflecting -–how would each character show his/her emotions? The more time I spend thinking this way, the more I learn about my characters.
… And soon, just like with the kiddos in my class, there's no need for the characters to raise their hands and tell me how their feeling, because I know exactly what they'll say or do when faced with a surprise, a challenge, an obstacle.
Now, excuse me while I go make Indoor S'mores.**
*Thank you, Julie Weathers, for posting the link on Twitter
**I dare you to try watching that video 8 times in a row to count the number of kids and not come away craving marshmallows.