Crafting Strong Scenes instructor Jessica Kluthe shares her experience learning to “show and not tell” and her thoughts on how scene work and exposition work to create memorable stories.
Showing and Not (Just) Telling
by Jessica Kluthe
When I was an undergraduate student taking intro-level creative writing courses at the University of Alberta, I was taught to show and not tell. I kept the image created by the Anton Chekov quote in my mind: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
It’s a beautiful, lasting image (which is probably why most writers can recite that line).
I remember thinking about this line when I was driving home from the city, on my way to Morinville where I lived, obsessing over a story I was working on as I hit Highway 2. I wondered if I should just give up writing altogether. I knew that I should be showing, not just writing descriptive but telling passages, but I didn’t really understand how to write the glint of moonlight on glass without simply saying exactly that.
As I kept writing and learning from experienced writing instructors, I realized that showing meant, in part, giving the reader a vicarious experience… almost as if they were standing just outside the frame of the story and watching the events unfold. When I looked back at early drafts, I had been simply relaying a story (i.e. this happened, then this happened, then this happened…) rather than using all of the storytelling tools available to me to craft a story. Two of those tools useful for crafting a story—that I’ve come to understand and now share with my own writing students—are scene work and exposition.
In the upcoming workshop, we will compare examples of scene work and exposition so that we really understand the distinction between the two. Then, we will be able to use these important tools to craft strong stories.
Just as that moonlight quote creates an image in the mind of a reader, strong scenes often hinge on clear images that the writer can work to connect to other images in the story. I have noticed that as my students become comfortable constructing scenes (showing and not telling) these connections become more powerful (and less explicit) than when they set out to deliberately make an image into a symbol or include an extended metaphor.
To get to the point that we are comfortable slipping in and out of scene work and exposition, we simply need to understand these tools and to practice.
The images in our scenes serve to make meaning in our overall story. For example, in a story I recently had published with Little Fiction, one of the main characters imagines that she is “splayed, flat” on the basement floor. Much later in the story the reader comes across a dead bird with a “black body, wing askew.” Together these two images, inside this particular story, come to represent the end of a long-term relationship—something crushed and something sorrowful.
As creators of literary fiction or creative nonfiction, we are working to make meaning of the human experience (which can involve drawing on our own lived experience or doing research to draw on the experiences of others).
As writers, we certainly do not want to lock ourselves into scene after endless scene.
For instance, it isn’t always important to show your reader how a character gets from Point A to Point B: they get in the garage, open the squeaky overhead door, drive down the street, make a pit stop at the grocery store for a sprig of mint, and then finally they hit the road only to find themselves in a traffic jam on the QE2 where the next important event takes place. If something feels skimmable to you when you are writing it, the reader will skim too. Sometimes using whitespace to signal a shift in time or place, and moving the reader right into the next important scene, is all we need to do.
We want to create strong scenes around moments that deserve narrative weight (the ones that really contribute to the meaning of the story). Perhaps we want to draw out that traffic jam, and use that moment to illuminate how the character feels stuck in their life in some greater sense. Alongside that scene work, we can write passages of exposition to provide the reader with necessary information to throw a light on the rest of the story (sometimes illuminating the motivation of a character or revealing how they arrived in the position that they did).
Each time I set out to write a new story, I am using these tools (and others that we will talk about in the workshop—including whitespace that I mentioned above); if it has been a while between drafts, I re-acquaint myself with these important story elements.
I’d love to work with you, whether you are an emerging or established writer, on May 16, and talk about these foundational tools and how we can put them to work to write strong, memorable stories. As a part of your registration, after the workshop, you are welcome to submit a story for feedback; I am really looking forward to the opportunity to read your work.
If you’re interested in registering for the Crafting Strong Scenes workshop, please visit Third Verb’s website: http://thirdverb.com/product/crafting-scenes/.
Jessica Kluthe holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from the University of Victoria and is a full-time writing instructor at MacEwan University. In 2013, she was named one of Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40. That same year, her book, Rosina, The Midwife, was published and landed on the Edmonton Journal’s list of best sellers for ten weeks. Jessica’s most recent story can be found in Nomfiction: a nonfiction anthology about food