The devil’s in the detail- the art of show not tell.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

This week, I introduced my class to the wonders of Sherlock Holmes. I was delighted to find that some of them already knew not only him, but Watson, Moriarty and 221B Baker Street. The idea of a mystery story delighted a good proportion of them too. But why had I picked this for my group of 10 and 11 year olds? Well, on a purely personal basis, I love Sherlock Holmes and I find it much easier to teach a book if I personally love it. (I’m afraid fellow primary teachers I don’t love the usual staple primary books and you would be horrified to know the books I have donated to other classes because I won’t touch them. If I’m bored, they’re bored.) I’ve read the books, comic book adaptations, young Sherlock, Baker Street Irregulars, spin off books. I’ve seen the shows, films, prequels, sequels. And yes, I have enjoyed most. I couldn’t possibly be pressed for a favourite (cough Jeremy Brett). But I digress.

The more I delved into the stories and the curriculum, the more I realised it really was an obvious choice, despite the lack of resources out there already. With reading SATs getting harder (don’t listen to the press, they are) the children are expected more and more to be able to infer and deduce things that I admit even I struggle with. Now who can deduce and infer from the tiniest clues more than anyone! Well it’s elementary! (There had to be one reference didn’t there.)

We started the lesson looking at a picture of a random man and I asked the class to tell me about him. I got the usual: he has cool hair, his coat is brown, he’s on a wall. Then we looked at the opening of ‘A Case of Identity’ where Sherlock asks Watson for his appraisal of their female visitor. Watson gives a good account of her clothing and as Sherlock notes, he has a great eye for colour yet has missed everything of import! After studying the clues observed by Sherlock, I watched as the children were amazed. Now this wasn’t just literary licence, the clues were all there. I asked the children to look again at the man and all of a sudden they noticed a cut on his hand and perhaps he had been in a fight. Is that why he’s wearing glasses? They were using what was there and finding a much better story.

Now although I started off saying that Sherlock was going to help my class pass their reading SAT, it soon became apparent that he could help our writing too. That glorious phrase oft repeated at volume up and down the country by English teachers- SHOW NOT TELL came to mind. Looking at the hints that Sherlock was picking up, it became clear that you could tell a story about a character without being so obvious. The woman had not walked into Holmes’ study shouting ‘Dear Sir, I am a short-sighted typist. Please help!’ And yet, he was able to deduce this as the details showed him who she was rather than her telling him.

Here’s where the lesson got interesting: I split the class into sixes. Each six then split into two threes- actors and observers. I gave every group the same scenario and instructed them to secretly assign a role to each member of the group. They would then have to act to the observers who were going to guess roles. The only problem was, the actors were not allowed to talk! This meant they had to show the audience and use body language and facial expressions. And you know what, they were pretty good! The policeman who looked the suspected thief up and down. The friend who had a bad memory shaking his head and screwing his eyes up in confusion. Every group was able to figure out the characters without a single word being uttered. The children were asked not just to say who they were but how they knew and therefore we created a discussion about possible ways of portraying an emotion. The person on the train didn’t have to be introduced as the scared passenger as we could already tell they were scared by the way they trembled.

So, will this translate into more interesting writing? Well, I guess this week I’ll find out but the signs are promising. The next challenge is to write a short scene for the scenario, can they still show the characters rather than telling me who they are? And that’s where you come in. I’m going to have a go and post my attempt in the comments and I would love to see your efforts!! Pick a scenario and have a go at the exercise. And remember no speech! I guess as a great man once said…’The game is afoot!’

Scenario 1-

You are three friends who have not seen each other for five years. A is still upset at B for what he said to him when they last met. B, has got an awful memory and keeps forgetting things. C loves animals and is really excited because he has a secret that he is not allowed to tell anyone.

Scenario 2-

You are three people stuck on a train. 1 is a thief who is hiding a stolen necklace in their bag. 2 is an undercover policeman who has noticed something suspicious about 1 but doesn’t know what. 3 is really scared of trains and has somewhere they must be in one hour.


One thought on “The devil’s in the detail- the art of show not tell.

  1. So after a weekend, some of the class had forgotten about not stating the obvious but a good number of them really got it using physical clues to portray emotion.

    Okay, so here’s my attempt. Please do have a go too!! It would be great to see how everyone does it.
    Scenario 1
    The three friends had finally gathered together for the first time in five years but it was not proving to be the joyous occasion that Edward had expected. Sam pressed herself into the corner of the sofa, refusing to meet his eyes. She had barely said a word to him since she had entered the house. Maria on the other hand wouldn’t stop talking. Her voice flowed over Edward like background noise; his brow was knitted in contemplation as he watched Sam. Maria could barely sit still, bouncing up and down on the beanbag chair she was sharing with the cats. Her eyes were lit up animatedly as she rambled but all of a sudden she stopped and placed a hand to her chin. She caught her bottom lip in her teeth as she blushed red and started to fuss over Jasper the cat.


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