“Ted is mean.”
This three-word sentence tells us nothing about Ted since we don’t know what is meant by “mean.”
“Ted likes to stomp kittens to death with his size 14D steel-toe army boots.”
Now this tells us that Ted is mean; more than mean, Ted is a psycho.
Herein we see the use of description in its ability to show, rather than tell. And, indeed, what we want from our students is to be shown rather told whatever they are trying to communicate in their narrative writing.
A good way to teach this concept is with a snippet from Thelma and Louise that shows characterization in the opening segment.
First, a brief digression:
The film opens with a dark and colorless view of distant hills approached by a long dirt road. Slowly the scene brightens, becoming a strikingly beautiful stretch of nature. This change from darkness to light shows rather than tells viewers what will happen in the movie. Someone in the film is going to change from darkness to light, or, more accurately, from ignorance to awareness. And what’s more, the scene shows a fine example of infinite regress; the dirt road leads away from the center of focus to vanishing point. Then the darkness returns, eventually becoming a black terrain with only a vague shadow of clouds visible above the hills. Great metaphorical image for the lives of both Thelma and Louise: great way to show rather than tell the film’s whole story.
Film’s advantage over the written word lies in its ability to visually portray characters. Both Thelma and Louise are defined in the visual details as they ready themselves for their road trip. Visuals alone let us know Thelma is restrained but yearns to let it all go and be free. This can be seen in how she goes to the refrigerator, takes out a candy bar, eats a bite and returns it to its cold quarters. A few minutes later she does this again. Then finally she takes the candy bar and eats it all. Great way to show what will become of a woman tired of limited passion in a repressed life. Look at how she prepares for the trip. Unable to decide what to pack, she empties a drawer and dumps the contents into her suitcase.
Louise, au contraire, is neat and precise; she packs her things in plastic bags stacked in an uncluttered suitcase. She straightens her collar, calls Jimmy, turns his picture down when he doesn’t answer and leaves a spotless kitchen by washing a glass and leaving it upside down on a towel.
Keep watching this segment until the moment the two women pose for the iconic photograph Louise takes with her Polaroid as they set off on their journey. You will see several more examples of quick shots that reveal character.
What’s fun is to follow up this snippet with an assignment in which the students characterize a friend, someone from mass media, or even a teacher, in a description of a revelatory action. Or, you can give them the characteristic you want them to show, say sneaky, angry, guilty, nervous, hungry, disappointed, or adventurous, and let them write a scene which uses an imagined person to portray the assigned characteristic.
The kids will get it; they’ll know the difference between showing and telling in their narrations. (If they choose to watch more of Thelma and Louise on their own time, that’s on them and that’s good.) See TWM’s newest Snippet Lesson Plan on Characterization Using a Snippet from Thelma and Louise.
Tags: film clips, teach using thelma and louise, thelma and louise lesson plan, visual metaphors, writing assignment ideas