Archive for May, 2010

How to Show “Less Is More”

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Less Is MoreIn my last few pieces, I went into some depth about how to teach children metaphor, all with the emphasis on shedding light on the old, favorite utterance among English and Creative Writing instructors alike: “Show me, don’t tell me.”

And, since I assert most teachers never really stop to think about how to explain what that odd phrase actually means [nor can they—usually—do it very well, themselves], I thought the subject needed to be explored some more, and then broken down into parts we can all understand, enabling those of us who find ourselves teaching children better qualified to make “show don’t tell” actually make some sense!  And, hopefully, I was able to stimulate your minds enough to help you teach such concepts, in regards to writing, to your students or your own children.

So now, I come upon another phrase often thrown around in writing—and other creative—classes, and that’s the phrase:

Less is more.  The phrase, evidently, is 19th century proverbial phrase, first found in print in Andrea del Sarto, 1855, a poem by Robert Browning.

But what, exactly, does it mean?

We grown-ups can understand the meaning easily enough, but how can we teach such an abstract idea to children?  To a child, however, it’s a nonsensical thing to say, and trying to explain the meaning can be tricky.  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve come to a determination about why less really is “more” when it comes to creative writing or story telling…er…storyshowing.

The phrase less is more is usually applied to the creating of a scene, description of something in a narrative, or other similar instances.  So why is less more, and what does that mean?

Well, when describing…while storyshowing…we want our listeners or readers to feel like they’re “there”, as much as possible; we want to show and not tell them what’s going on in such a way as to excite their imaginations, right?

Here’s what I’ve come to realize about less is more:

When we give too many details or too much description, we actually [in my words] sort of steal or rob people’s imaginations of the privilege of filling in details, in their minds, from past experiences; doing this makes the story less intriguing [at least for adults], and even to a large degree for kids, because our imaginations are usually more vivid than even the greatest description.

The thing is, it’s not so important your reader or listener “see” the details exactly the same way as the writer has first imagined in his or her head [what writers who use too much detail typically are trying to do]; so long as the reader gets the important details to complete a picture in his or her mind, this makes for better storyshowing.

Here are a few examples:

Too much detail:

John was all muddy.  His once white, Nike shoes with the electric blue stripes and matching blue laces were now covered in mud two inches thick, with little bits of grass sticking out here and there, and the mud was up past John’s ankles, so that his socks were just as muddy as his Nike’s, and the mud had spattered his legs, white shorts, and white T-shirt, with globs of mud and spots of muddy water stains made his shirt look kind of like a Dalmatian.

Notice how you “see” all of those details but, like misdirection in a magic trick, your imagination is focused ONLY on those details, and “misses” the bigger picture?  That’s what too much attention can do in just about any circumstance of life.

Now fewer details:

John looked like he’d stepped on a mud bomb.   What made it worse was he had been dressed in white; white shoes, shorts, and T-shirt.  Now his clothes looked kind of like a Dalmatian and he stank like the swamp.

See how the image of “…like he’d stepped on a mud bomb” allows your imagination to picture a mud “bomb” “explode” beneath some kid?  The remaining, few details give you just enough to complete a picture that will be uniquely your own; you might even have someone in mind to “be” John.

The greatest novelists are known for their skill in using sparing, sketchy details when it comes to description, respecting the reader’s imagination as the most important element in storyshowing.   Children, in their excitement while writing stories, often overload with details, and most adults are probably just about as prone to this [natural] inclination.

If you can effectively teach your students to always incorporate LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, in their own creative writing [I like the idea of making a poster visible in the classroom], as well as getting comfortable in using some basic simile and metaphor, they will quickly pick up on how to skillfully “show and not tell” and even do so by using less to make their stories more engaging.

How to Show Using Conventional Metaphors

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Teaching children metaphorIn my last piece, I talked about teaching children how to “show not tell” using visual metaphors.   In this piece, I wanted to jump right into teaching children how to show using conventional and creative metaphors, but upon further review of the two types, I think we should stick to conventional metaphors, as creative metaphors are fairly abstract, and do take more mature minds to comprehend.

But here are two quick definitions:

According to, a conventional metaphor is:

“A familiar comparison that does not call attention to itself as a figure of speech.“

Here are a few examples of conventional, just to help us know where to start:

• “His temperature went up.”
• “The work keeps piling up.”
• “I’m a night owl…she’s an early bird…”
• “Life is a journey.”
[For kids, you could say “Life is a field trip: Have fun, stay together, and don’t get lost.]

Notice how these metaphors call attention to themselves, meaning, they’re OBVIOUSLY figures of speech, and no one—not even children—would think a person is really a night owl, or that life is a journey or field trip!

Contrast with creative metaphor, just to show you how bizarre they truly can be, I’ve included three examples so you know I’m not trying to get out of teaching creative metaphors. Ha!  Creative metaphor is defined as:

“An original comparison, which does call attention to itself, as a figure of speech.”

Here are a few creative metaphors to look at.  I took these straight off’s examples page, as I couldn’t think of any of my own; perhaps you can create some of your own after reading these:

“Her tall black-suited body seemed to carve its way through the crowded room.”
(Josephine Hart, Damage, 1991)
“Fear is a slinking cat I find, Beneath the lilacs of my mind.”
(Sophie Tunnell, “Fear”)
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.”
(Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”)

See what I mean? Weird, hunh?

Now…to teach children how to show using conventional metaphors I, of course, assert it’s best to begin using metaphors the kids are likely to have heard many times before [again, with blatant explanation of how they make sense, using LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND.  Let’s stick with the examples above and build on those.

Let’s take a variation on “his temperature went up”, which meaning could be confused meaning he got a fever, and say…

Jim suddenly got hotheaded.

[Some coaxing here, to direct kids’ thoughts might be needed.

You could say…

“Have you ever watched a cartoon where, say, Daffy Duck, gets really mad and his face turns red and steam comes out of his ears?   That looks like his head is getting hot, doesn’t it?   So let’s pretend this man or boy, Jim, gets mad suddenly, so we say his head ‘got hot’, okay?”

You then might want to help kids realize people do things like clench their teeth, stomp their feet [they’ll know this], slam things down, or throw things, or yell when angry.  Invite them to list things they might notice people doing or happening when they get mad.

So with that image in mind, your kids can “LOOK” [picture in their minds] Jim with a red face, jaw muscles flexing, nostrils flaring, etc.  So let’s show, in steps, how Jim could “be” and angry bull, for example:

Jim was an angry bull.
Jim was breathing and grunting.
Jim’s nostrils flared with his loud breathing.
Jim paced back and forth.
Jim looked like he was ready to charge at someone

Jim was an angry, snorting and panting bull, pacing back and forth, looking as if he was about to charge at someone.

Then, using LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, your kids can build upon the elements there that will make up their stories.

ONE WORD OF GENTLE CAUTION TO ADULTS/TEACHERS/PARENTS: Don’t worry about kids coming up with ridiculous “reasons” to satisfy LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND; so long as they give reasons to explain—the most important thing—they’ll eventually come up with realistic, feasible, and engaging reasons that make for good storyshowing.  For now, we want them to become familiar with what metaphor is, and then be able to create some basic metaphors of their own, or at least be able to identify metaphors easily.

Next up: How To “Show” “Less Is More”