Show, Don’t Tell: A Disney Lesson

The other day, I came across one of those children’s books that is a condensed Disney movie. They take the pictures from the movie, slap on some summary of what happens, and call it a picture book. I assume the idea is to get kids reading with stories they already love, but looking at it, I just remembered how much I hated those books when I was little.

And then I wondered why I hated them so much. After all, the books have the same artwork as the movie, the same characters, and the same story. Was it just the lack of music that made me want to put them down?


It’s not the music that makes the difference, of course (although Disney sure knows how to write show-stoppers). In the movie, every scene is laid out beat by beat so you get to see Cinderella’s stepmother manipulate her; you get to feel her panic as she is trapped in the attic when the Grand Duke comes with the slipper. The picture books simplify the problems and the solutions into mere sentences. ¬†For example, one Cinderella book I have (since it was my favorite, I actually have a few) reads:

“‘CINDERELLA’ called the stepmother. Cinderella went downstairs. ‘I want you to clean the floor and wash the windows and dust the drapes,’ said the stepmother.”

The scene in the movie goes much differently: after the mice have managed to get into Drusilla and Anastasia’s breakfasts, the stepmother calls Cinderella in for a talk. The bedroom is dark and sinister, and the cat Lucifer grins as he anticipates Cinderella’s punishment. As Cinderella tries to apologize, her stepmother cuts her off, and then the stepmother alternates between a “killing with kindness” voice and a harsh bark to order Cinderella around. THAT is how Cinderella gets told to clean the floor and wash the windows and dust the drapes. It is the product of a scene that establishes Cinderella’s relationship with her stepmother, a scene that establishes the stepmother as the villain, and a scene that just plain engages the watcher’s emotions.

So when the picture book reduces it to a mere order that occupies Cinderella’s time until the ball, it oversimplifies the plot and the character questions. And as a five-year-old, I knew it and didn’t like it. You can bet older readers are going to see through it just as quickly.

Last week I talked about cutting out the extra parts of your novel to get right to the good stuff. What these picture books show, though, is that there is a place for showing. I don’t want to just be told that Cinderella’s stepmother was mean: I want to see it, and see how Cinderella reacts to that. By telling the unimportant stuff, you leave room for showing the meat of the scenes that will engage the reader and thicken the plot.

(If you want to watch the scene I’m talking about, it starts in this clip at about 3:05)