Saturday, 10 September 2016

Paper 1: Why we might need to place more emphasis showing and telling in lessons?

Another academic year and yet another attempt to understand the new GSCE English Language exam from AQA. Again, I am looking at the structure question and also the opinion based question 4.

For years, decades and millennia we, English teachers, have taught students to ‘show and not tell’ when writing. The interesting thing is that we have undersold this valuable lesson. We have produced – I know I have – reams of flowery, purple prose. Students have ‘shown’ me so much in their writing my eyes have bled. I have had to lie down with a migraine afterwards. I have had to watch a blank wall just to return to sense of normality afterwards. For ages, we have informed students to see that showing is good and telling is bad. Yet, I think we have missed a very important lesson. Why on earth would a writer show something when they could tell it instead? Marley is dead.

I am working my way slowly, very slowly, through the ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction’ by Wayne C. Booth at the moment and the first chapter happens to be on how writers use ‘showing and telling’ in their writing and it is incredibly complex and varied.

For this blog I am going to focus on two opening lines from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’.

[a] The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.

[b]At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.

Looking at these two sentences, we could easily describe [a] as a showing sentence and [b] as a telling sentence. Yet, there’s something more about them than Atwood wanting just show off more and just telling it as it is. We have always seen telling to be an inferior way of writing. There has been a sense of snobbery about it. If a student focused on telling a story, they’d struggle to get a Level 5 (old money) in KS3 yet many writers employ it continually in their novel. In fact, thrillers and airport thrillers live and breathe the telling method.

When exploring telling and showing with prose extracts this year I am going to teach them the following points.

Writers tend to show to…

       Focus on the experience

       Create an atmosphere

       Make the reader feel they are part of the story

       Suggest things and hint things

       Make the reader make judgements and opinions

Writers tend to tell to…

       Focus on the plot

       Tell the story quickly

       Make the reader understand the events quickly and clearly


       Show the reader what that writer wants us to think or feel

[a] The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.

Atwood here is clearly focused on the atmosphere in the opening sentence. The opening part is structured on the senses – the freezing rain – which then contrasts with the happy custom of throwing rice at a wedding. We then have the person throwing the rice described as ‘some unseen celebrant’. The casual use of ‘some’ makes the person seem unimportant in the writer’s eyes. Although the word ‘unseen’ usually has sinister undertones, it isn’t bad as the person is defined as a ‘celebrant’. They are clearly there to celebrate.  

The writer focuses more on the atmosphere than the people.

The writer describes part of a wedding.

The writer shows us that the fact it is rain at this time is important.

As first sentences goes, it is your typical attempt to engage the reader by placing them in the narrative. They are experiencing it. Freezing rain. Shining rice. An unseen person in the background. We are positioned on the text. We are expected to feel.  We are expected to search for meaning or relevance of each bit.  

[b]At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.

Atwood keeps the focus on Verna’s thoughts and the events she is part of. She had no intent to kill in the past, but clearly something has happened to make her kill. The emphasis here is clearly on the plot. We are not positioned in the events of the story. We are observers. Helpless observers. But, what is really important here is that we are told a truth. An authorial fact. We are to accept the writer’s word that she didn’t plan to kill the person. By telling this fact we are engaged in the dilemma and the possible events leading to this fact.

The two stories start in different ways. The way they start is important when looking at the structure of the stories and evaluating if they are effective in what they set out to do. Both are intending to engage the reader. One is about immersing the reading in the experience of the characters as they were positioned in the story, experiencing the story as it happens. The other is about quick engagement in a dilemma or plot. The fact that one takes more concentration than the other is intentional. But, the fact that writers control the story telling is a paramount thing we need to teach students. There are many ways to tell a story. We need to show that there are different approaches and maturely explore the reasons behind the choices. One approach I have used in the past is the simple reveal of a sentence at a time:

[1] I once saw a bloke try to kill himself.

[2]I’ll never forget the day because I was sitting in the house one Saturday afternoon, feeling black and fed-up because everybody in the family had gone to the pictures, except me who’d for some reason been left out of it.

[3]‘Course, I didn’t know then that I would soon see something you can never see in the same way on the pictures, a real bloke stringing himself up.

[4]I was only a kid at the time, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed it.

Source: On Saturday Afternoon by Alan Sillitoe 

This opening is great for the way it starts with the authorial fact of person attempting suicide. A short, almost casual sentence is made even more casual by the word ‘bloke’. Then, the writer goes on to ‘show’ the day and the man ‘stringing himself up’. Then, comes the ending with the voice ‘telling’ us he was a kid, which makes the previous sentences more shocking. The structure looks like this telling / showing / telling.

Writers both show and tell in their stories. We need to train students to recognise and highlight the different bits and see where there is telling and where there is showing. This shift between showing and telling is probably the most important structural choice a writer makes. I could spend ages looking at how a writer foreshadows aspect, but if the student can’t tell the difference between showing and telling in the writing then a large component of understanding and insight will be missed.   

We need to spend more time focusing on this showing and telling aspect rather than any other aspect, because when a student understands why a writer is telling us something instead of showing us something, they will be telling us something meaningful. Searching for a text for list of structural techniques, I think, is rather meaningless. Staring with highlighting which bits are showing and which bits are telling is probably more effective. Then, when you get to question 4 and when you are looking, say, if the characters are convincingly portrayed, the students focus when the characters are shown. This will then, hopefully, move us away from students repeating the content. How does the writer show us the setting? How does the writer show us the characters? How does the writer show us the threat of violence? A focus on showing and telling from the start would help us with this.

Thanks for reading,


The following are first lines from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’.

       The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.

       Reynolds bustles into the living room, carrying two pillows.

       Every morning at breakfast Jorrie reads the obituaries in all three of the papers.

       What could be done with me, what should be done with me?

       The next thing is that his car won’t start.

       “I had a dream about Zenia last night,” says Charis.

       At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.

       The little people are climbing up the nightstand.


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