'Tom Green,' a story by 10-year-old Zahra Batteh, is a classic redemption tale. Tom Green, a horrible, spoiled, lazy young man loses all his money and privilege, and through a series of misfortunes and (eventually) hard work over several years develops compassion and gratitude, and becomes a better person. In the end, he finds happiness not in the material things that were all he cared about in the beginning but in a simpler, more generous-spirited life spent helping others. What makes this story extra special is the writer’s style: Zahra Batteh tells the story of Tom in a natural, almost conversational voice, but without wasting a word. Every short sentence moves the action forward and paints a picture of Tom’s life and character. In just four pages, Zahra manages to make the reader feel as though they know everything about Tom and how he has spent four whole years of his life. I think she achieves this feat partly though the spareness of her language. She doesn’t hint, or judge, or indulge in long, flowery descriptions; she lays out the facts plainly and simply, showing us who Tom was and who he becomes without ever telling us what she thinks he is like. It’s a great example of the power of “show, don’t tell.” The story also has a well-judged turning point about half way through where the previously unpleasant character begins to transform.
First, read 'Tom Green' at least once, paying particular attention to the ways Tom's character and behaviour are revealed all the way through the story. What language does Zahra use to describe Tom Green? You can also click on the audio link at the top of the story's page to hear the author reading the story aloud herself at Soundcloud. After you have read it for yourself, try listening to the way Zahra reads, especially where she places emphasis, to get an insight into how she was thinking about Tom Green as she wrote his story.
Show don't tell: One of the things you will notice is how few adjectives and adverbs Zahra uses when she talks about Tom's actions. She tells us what happens, but she doesn't make a judgement or tell us readers what we should think of him. For example, in the first paragraph, she tells us that Tom expects all his food to taste incredible: "If there was ever something that didn't meet his taste buds' expectations, it would instantly hit the bottom of his trash can with a small thud, and the chef would be off to prepare a new and better dish." Zahra doesn't actually say that Tom Green spits out his food, throws it away, shouts at the chef (he has a personal chef!) and so on, but as we read this explanation of what happens, we can just imagine the horrible behaviour that Tom is displaying. Zahra leads us gently, showing us paragraph by paragraph what Tom's qualities are. By showing us the actions without telling us exactly what to think of them she makes it possible for Tom's ultimate transformation to sound believable.
A clear turning point: Zahra is also very careful not to say too much about what Tom is feeling, which makes the nuggets she gives us speak loudly about him. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Tom "threatened" his parents with a lie, and then did a "small happy dance" when he learned they were dead. When he first loses all his money and has to move into a shed, we learn "he hated everything about" it. We hear that he has been fired from every job he has had over the past year, so it is a surprise to read on the third page that he feels "guilty" when the manager of Pick-up car service is nice to him, because he knows that a few years ago he would have treated this man like an "annoying fly". This is the turning point. After this, Tom starts to "enjoy" his work, to listen to others, and to feel gratitude for what he has. He decides he wants to help to change the world for the better. Because Zahra has focused on his behaviour, rather than telling us Tom has a fundamentally bad character, her turning point is believable. Tom Green can change, and he does.
Invent your own flawed character and think about what might lead them to redemption. Then, try to write their story as simply, and with as little judgement of their actions, as you can. Identify a believable turning point where they start to change for the better. Show us, don’t tell us, who your main character is. Let your readers make up their own minds about who they are and what they are like.
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