What does "show, don't tell"; really mean? Part 2 of 2.


In Part 1 of this piece, I wrote about scene, the importance of details, and how meaning happens when you describe without explaining. You might want to read that first if you haven't already.

When you're taught how to write, you're taught how to form letters into words and sentences. Then you can communicate a message using alpha-numeric symbols.

Many people who long to write stories feel like they're missing something important. They try to write a good story, but they don't know how, and they don't know exactly why they don't know how. They've already learned how to read and write, after all. And they're quite good at those things! Obviously, there's more to being a writer than just knowing how to write.

But what is it? What makes creative writing different?

Creative writing is about creation.

Creation is not to be taken lightly. By definition, it is the act of bringing something into existence. It's making something out of nothing. Consider the force and mystery of that for a moment!

Bringing something into existence requires special skills. This is why so many writing teachers (myself included) put importance on free-fall writing (also called freewriting) -- the fast, dreamy, unedited, stream-of-consciousness unspooling of words onto a page. You freewrite to loosen your grip on "reality" and practice breaking the rules (i.e.: grammar, margins, or whatever "rules" means to you).

When you're writing creatively you want to feel the freedom that experimentation requires, but without training or direction, you may freewrite indiscriminately for a long time.

You can write and write, and still not bring anything into existence.

Freewriting is not always creative writing.

Morning pages are a good example of this -- their purpose is to clear your mind, to make space for your creative work.

You can empty two hundred ink cartridges with stream-of-consciousness writing and fill twice as many notebooks with loose and free sentences, but if you're not paying attention, you eventually will feel frustrated, like you're still not creating anything.

Writing fiction is not just writing freely. You need to pay attention.

More than any story structure, character notes, my timer, or a page count, this is what I aim for when I write: consciousness, unfiltered. Your attention is the most important part of your writing practice. Freewriting without attention is a crapshoot; your craft lives in your attention.

Writing what I observe without explaining or mediating gives me a direction to follow. I know it when I feel it, because writing this way asks me to be quiet and humble. I'm still allowed to write messy and terrible sentences. I'm still allowed to write without a plan. The only rule I follow is to scan my mind for images that pop up and try to get them down without mediating or explaining them. Even if they don't make any sense, and even before I know what I'm really writing about, I try to stay true to what comes up.

This is my north star in the wilderness of a first draft: my attention.

That's why I named my writing school Story Is a State of Mind. Attention is the only thing you can trust in your writing process. It's also one thing I know how to teach a writer. Even when you're afraid that you're writing something horrible, or lost in the middle of a plotless nowhere, when you come back to writing with attention, you find a flash of pink flagging tape that shows you the trail.

At the same time as your attention is focused on the scene, you need to get out of the way. You have to make room for mystery. You won't know everything about what you're writing, even as you write it. That's what makes creation so powerful: you're in service to something you don't understand. Yikes.

Paying attention requires great humility.

Writing plain, simple observations can be challenging. We think we have to do something special to make our humble observation more meaningful. That all on its own, a simple detail will be boring or insignificant.

It's like we don't trust our observation to be enough. It feels vulnerable putting what we notice out there, unprotected and plain. We want to put thoughtful adjectives and insights in to make it seem more worthy.

But every observation has its own significance, even without us in there. We think we have to work so hard at writing, but paying attention is the hardest part.

In Mary Oliver's poem, The Summer Day, she describes a grasshopper eating sugar. She doesn't explain the significance of the grasshopper, she just observes it. In a recent interview, Oliver stressed that the grasshopper actually existed. It was eating the frosting from a cupcake, she said.

When the interviewer mistakenly called the poem "A Summer Day," Mary Oliver sharply corrected her. "It's called THE Summer Day," Oliver said, emphasizing specificity and attention, which was her whole point.

Tutorial: How to write with attention and humility.

Here is an exercise to help you get humble. It's a warm-up. It makes a stunning daily practice. Try this before you start working on your "real" writing.

(For more on the importance of warm-ups, read this.)

Every morning of my Story Is a State of Mind writing retreat, I asked my writers to start by writing down a list of ten things they noticed that day so far. Then each writer would read one or two observations to the whole group.

One day, a writer wrote, "The dark hole in the wall."

She read this tiny plain observation out loud, and a palpable ripple passed through all of us. Because that dark hole, when it was observed purely and written without any mediation or explanation, existed in the air around us. We could feel it when she read it.

It was real.

The moss on the edge of that piece of wood, for instance. It's meaningful, all by itself. A thread hanging off that boy's sock -- it's important already. That slice of pear in your salad today? It has a significance all on its own. You don't need to articulate meaning -- just notice what it really is.

Do this:

Write down ten things that you noticed today so far. If you write in the morning before you do anything else, don't worry. Even if it's only 4am, I promise you have noticed ten things already.

Be plain. Write plainly.

Don't explain anything.

Don't mediate your observation by writing what you think about it - just write it.

Don't use metaphors. Don't over-describe.

Don't put any meaning into it.

Just write the thing you noticed.

Then write another thing.

Do this ten times.

This is showing, not telling. Try it. It can be surprisingly difficult at first -- that's part of the craft. That's why it makes such a good compass when you're in a first draft.

Your quiet, humble attention is the one thing you can count on.


Sarah Selecky

Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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Frances Boyle

Thanks for this Sarah. As ever, your posts are insightful and very pertinent. I freewrite a lot and find it very fruitful (especially for poetry which I write in addition to short fiction). Images upon images and words leading to other words is often fine in a poem. But I do worry about the often obscure /nonsensical nature of what emerges. I've tried to explore the distinction between adding some intentionality without giving in to overly-analytical intellectualizing or directing the writing. I think it may be more useful to think about attention as you suggest rather than intention.
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Steve Wybourn

Thank you so much for this. It's so clear. I often get caught up in my descriptive writing, worrying that it's not going to be amazing enough. I often avoid description and setting as a result. This gives me an easy way in. "The dark hole in the wall" is a lovely example. Thanks for the wisdom. Steve
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I come from a family of visual artists. I grew up with a heavy bias against showing in fiction writing. "Showing = screenplay. Telling = novel. Write what you can't film." Your series is giving me such an appreciate for showing as a fiction writing tool. Love this exercise.
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This is the most important lesson! I've practiced freewriting for years and have felt like something was missing.
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Hi Sarah, thanks for this interesting post! The link to Part 1 seems broken, however. I think this one is Ok https://www.sarahseleckywritingschool.com/show-dont-tell-1/ Best regards, Ola
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Ryan Henderson

Thanks, Ola. The links should be fixed now.
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