Tips for Writing Picture Books: Show Don’t Tell

Today I share my acquired pet peeve of the word was and you’ll see why it’s so important to

Show Don’t Tell

To be or not to be, that was the existential question written by an ancient playwright whose name I can’t remember. But Shakespeare did not write picture books. While questioning existence is not a topic generally covered in the medium of picture books, I personally find that describing existence is done far too often. Writing what something is (or was, as most picture books are written in the past tense) should be avoided as much as Shakespeare avoided Hugh Fennyman.

Why, you ask? Because the illustrations show what that something is (or was). This combines both the Every Word Counts and The Illustrator Is Your Partner lessons. There’s no reason to tell the readers what is already shown in the illustrations. It’s simply a redundant waste of words.

What if you need to express a character’s feelings? How can I avoid saying “Hamlet was sad” or “Leonardo DiCaprio is hungry”? The answer is the much mentioned writing paradigm: Show Don’t Tell.

Leonardo DiCaprio Is Hungry

Simply, say “Hamlet cried.” This shows he is sad. If you want to go into more detail, say “Tears slipped down Hamlet’s cheeks.” Perhaps Leo can “rub his empty stomach” or he can “stare at the delicious looking sushi in the water tank.”

I recommend you do a quick search for the word was (and wereis, are, etc) and see how many you can remove/replace/reword from your manuscript without drastically increasing your word count. As was is such a passive word, I’m willing to bet that you’re revision is going to be much more lively and impassioned.

The overuse of the word was and learning how to show instead of tell began the journey toward learning how to …

Write with Active Emotion

… which is for next time. See you then!


See all of Josh Funk’s 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books

Lesson #1: So, You Wrote a Book. Now What?
Lesson #2: Picture Books Are Short
Lesson #3: Every Word Counts
Lesson #4: The Illustrator Is Your Partner
Lesson #5: Show Don’t Tell
Lesson #6: Write with Active Emotion
Lesson #7: Story Arc Components
Lesson #8: Don’t Write In Rhyme
Lesson #9: Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
Lesson #10: Some Ideas Don’t Work
Lesson #11: Keep Learning
Lesson #12: Now You’re Ready! Dive In!

5 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: Show Don’t Tell

  1. I detest the evil “show, don’t tell” rule unconditionally, and I will not be deterred from violating it constantly and shamelessly by any of your manipulative dictatorship of taste.


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