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Creative Writing: The Techniques of Showing and Telling

By Dave Hood

If you dream of becoming a successful creative writer, meaning that you desire to have your writing work published, read,  and talked about, then you must learn and master the techniques of creative writing.   There are many techniques that you must learn and master.  One of the most important is “showing and telling.” When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay, or fiction, or poetry, such as a narrative poem, you must both show and tell your readers what has happened. And you must either show or tell the inner worlds of characters and the outer world that they see. Showing and telling breathes life into a story and shifts its pace to slow or high gear.

The technique of “showing” means to create a scene, to expand time,  and to dramatize the story, whether fiction or creative nonfiction.

You will stretch the details into a vivid description, or a larger scene. A scene includes the setting, dialogue, action from a particular character, imagery with word pictures.  By showing your readers what happened or how a character is dressed or conducts himself or herself, you create significance to a story, whether fiction or nonfiction. You also make your readers believe the story and produce an entertaining read. And only work that is entertaining will get published and purchased.

The technique of “telling” your reader means that you summarize and compress description of character and  events in the story, reducing or eliminating the concrete and specific details, reducing or eliminating sensory images, erasing the scene of a story. In other words, sometimes you will compress the details of a character or event into a summary. Summarizing enables you to speed up the pace of the story, explain inner thoughts of character or significance of events that cannot be explained in scenes, provide a backdrop, or write about exposition/background of the story.

In this post, I’ll explain how to use the techniques of ” showing and telling” when writing poetry, short fiction, or creative nonfiction.

Showing the Reader (Writing a Scene)

As an aspiring writer, you desire to create compelling, believable, entertaining, even memorable prose or poetry. By deploying the technique of “showing” your readers,  writing in scenes,  you are able to create a “felt experience” in the mind of the reader.  This technique is used to evoke an emotional response. Moreover, showing the reader makes the story believable, as you are able to “recreate the scene with words.”  If you are unable to entertain or make the story believable,  readers will put down your piece of creative writing before finishing it.

Instead of summarizing or compressing details, the writer shows readers by constructing a scene for each important event that unfolds or to develop a character. The scene in prose or poetry is just like the scene in a movie, which has a beginning, middle, and end. Writing a scene instead of a summary brings the story to life, creates a dream in the mind of the reader, and entertains them, inspires them to turn the page, to discover what happens next. You can only create memorable prose or poetry with scenes. And all great poets, like Charles Simic, or memorable writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, write scenes for their fictional stories or poems.  Here is an example from writer Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping off of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil…

When should you show readers what happened ?

You ought to create a scene for any of the following situations:

  • Conflict in the mind of the character or with another character or society
  • Setbacks or obstacles that prevent the character from achieving his or her goal
  • Turning point, such as an illness, marriage break up, job loss
  • Crisis, such as when you or the character runs out of options and must make a painful and stressful decision.

As well, when developing a character, you construct the character sketch or profile with vivid details, concrete and particular description, describing the behaviour of a character within a scene. In fiction, you rely on the character sketch or profile to compose your imaginary character. In a personal essay, you share important details, such as personality traits,  about yourself.

How can you show your readers a character or what happened?

There are many techniques. The most important are  to write down important details, use concrete and particular descriptions, use sensory images that create word pictures in the mind of your readers.  Here is a list of ways to show your reader:

  • Sensory imagery-use language that appeals to the sense of sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing
  • Vivid details that are concrete, specific, particular
  • Concrete and specific descriptions
  • Metaphor and simile
  • Symbolism-something or some object that represents more than its literal meaning.
  • Personification-using descriptions, traits, adjectives applied to human beings to describe things that are not human. Example: The rock growled at us as we walked past.

As well, remember to use the active voice. It performs the action of the verb. Example: Rocky, the boxer, closed his fist, “punched” his wife in the face.

How do you show your readers by constructing a scene?

You can craft a scene with the following characteristics:

  • Setting-time and place and context.
  • Dialogue-what is said by characters in the story, both the main character and supporting cast.
  • Action-describing the conduct of the character with significant details.
  • Sensory imagery-language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing.
  • Details-significant and particular details; sensory images.
  • Descriptions–Concrete and specific descriptions.

As well, remember that a scene has a beginning, middle, and end—just like a scene from a movie. And always use the active voice, which performs the action of the verb. Example: Eddie Ruth, the baseball player, smacked the pitch with the heavy bat, over the centerfield fence for a home run.

Telling Your Readers (Writing a Summary)

Sometimes, you’ll be required to tell your readers what happened by compressing time and leaving out many of the important, particular details. Essentially, you’ll summarize what happened. Here’s an example:

First, I purchased money from the ATM machine, then I bought groceries, then I cooked dinner, then I watched television…When the night descended, I drifted off to sleep.

This is a summary of how the person carried out their day. It is not detailed description or series of scenes.

When should you tell your readers what happened? There are many suggestions or guidelines that you can use to help you determine when to show and when to tell. You can tell your readers when you are writing:

  • Backdrop of the story– setting of the story, such as time and place and context
  • Exposition-The writer provides the reader with background details about plot, setting, character, theme.
  • Interpret ting an experience or event. Sometimes you will need to explain the significance of a scene.
  • Repeated experiences , such as daily rituals or events.

Jane Burroway in Writing Fiction suggests that there are two ways to write a summary:

  • Sequential summary-The writer tells the reader what has happened with a condensed and compressed version of the story. Significant details are omitted.  Instead, the story is summarized.
  • Circumstantial summary-The writer uses summary to describe the circumstances for  repeated details or what has happened, such as time, place, cause, effect, reasons for occurrence.

When writing a summary, the writer can also include vivid details–but not a scene. Writing a summary is most important in short fiction and narrative poetry.

As well, a summary can be used by the writer within a scene. Remember, a scene includes setting details, dialogue, action, imagery, concrete and specific description. Often this summary explains the significance of the scene.

Read any edition of the prestigious New Yorker magazine, and you will see that all writers use the techniques of showing and telling in poetry, short fiction, book reviews, film reviews, essays, profiles, literary journalistic essays, commentary.

Summary

Showing and telling are two of the most important techniques you can learn and apply in your creative writing, whether you desire to write prose or poetry. To “show” means to write in scenes, and to use vivid, concrete, particular, significant details. “To tell” means to compress and to summarize the character sketch and  the events that have happened.

Showing and telling is a balancing act. Too much generalization leads to boredom. Too much detail also leads to boredom.

The successful poet, fiction writer, creative nonfiction writer both “shows and tells” his/her readers, and knows when to use each technique to compose a poem, short story, novel, personal narrative essay, memoir, or any other type of creative writing.

Resources

For additional explanation on showing and telling, you can read:

  • Writing fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Words  Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
  • Showing and Telling: Learn How to Show & Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing, by Laurie Alberts.
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Opening the Door to Memory

 By Dave Hood

How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of  the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography.  And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.

In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.

What is the Importance of Memory?

“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)

Memory also constructs the self– who you are.  The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.

Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.

A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll.  You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as  writing prompts, to tap into  memories filed away in your mind.

And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.

The Five Senses

We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.

Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit.  To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.

Our sense of taste is often acquired.  Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.

The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.

The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.

The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant.  The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen?  Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.

What Memories to Write About?

Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:

  • First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
  • Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
  • Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
  • Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
  • Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.

Tools for Mining Your Memories?

There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.

The easiest way to tap into your memory  is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.

Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.

Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.

 Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how:  Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting.  Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.

Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.

A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?

Tools for Writing About Memory

Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader .  You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.

When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:

  • Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
  • When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes  and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
  • Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
  • Write vivid descriptions.

Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.

In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories.  Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.

Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.

Resources

To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:

  • How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
  • A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
  • Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
  • Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola