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Creative Writing: The Techniques of Showing and Telling

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June 2012
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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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