That Fragile Moment

Ashley Memory

Ashley Memory

We are always at the beginning of things, in the fragile moment that holds the power of life….we are always at the morning of the world.

I often think of this quotation by the Chinese-born French writer François Cheng, but especially in the morning. This is indeed the most “fragile moment” for me as a writer. I love autumn because it means I can sleep with the windows open and wake up to the sounds of dawn: the cry of a blue jay or the jingle of our wind chimes.

This is the time when I feel most compelled to slip out of bed and into the pages of my journal. It’s paramount that I do so quietly, before waking the dogs and before the rituals of the day intrude, even breakfast.

Here, staring out the window at my desk, I can revel in the day’s first light, that gentle shaft of sunlight through the trees. Sometimes a deer will surprise me and we find ourselves staring at each other, transfixed, wondering who will look away first. When the window is open, I can hear the distant crow of roosters, even the salubrious moo of cows from miles away. This is when the gentle buzz of inspiration floods my senses.

This “fragile moment” is when I am able to conjure up the most creative metaphors for a poem or even finish a paragraph of prose that had troubled me the day before. New structures and themes for my work often reveal themselves now. I also am privy to a special kind of clarity that brings perspective. The work that is most pressing always emerges, and I gain the single-mindedness needed to finish it.

However, if just the tiniest sliver of the rest of the world emerges, say my husband J.P. rises and turns on the television or if a neighbor decides to roar down our common driveway, the spell is suddenly broken. Now I am lured too easily into other rituals, and my “fragile moment” slips away forever.

You may know this already, and you may be even more disciplined than me about seizing these precious nuggets of time, but if not, try it yourself. Climb out of bed early one day and ignore your normal to-do list. Go to your favorite writing perch, grab a notebook or your laptop, and let your imagination wander. You’ll be surprised at how much this “unstructured” time contributes to the larger plan. You may even experience a whisper of serenity, which will seep into the rest of your day, and make that to-do list of other tasks less daunting. Better yet, you may experience a creative rebirth and the power to begin again, every single day.


ABOUT ASHLEY: Ashley Memory’s fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, most recently in The Independent, Poets & Writers, Wired and Real Simple. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has twice won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize. Her first poetry collection, Waiting for the Wood Thrush, was published in 2019 by Finishing Line Press.


JOURNAL WITH ASHLEY: Join Ashley for Fueling the Fires: Journal as Inspiration on October 12th, via Zoom. In this class, we’ll discuss the many options available for journaling as well as techniques for transforming these scribbles into polished stories, essays, or poems. Time will be divided between teaching, looking at examples, discussion, writing in class, and sharing. More information is here.

Honoring the Craft

Amy PaturelYou might have heard the platitude “those who can’t do, teach.” Obviously, I don’t agree with that theory. I’m a teacher. Plus, I have several friends and acquaintances who defy that logic. And yet, I also recognize that teaching makes doing a lot more challenging.

A former student, who is also a writer and professor, likens teaching to a “joyful bloodletting” whereby you insert an IV into your vein and suck all of the creativity out of your bloodstream.

While it isn’t quite that intense for me, I’m also not teaching full time (though it feels like full time!). What I have noticed since the coronavirus pandemic began, and I started feeling pulled to reach more students, is that I have to be more intentional about my craft. I have to make it a priority not only to read my students’ work, but also to tackle my own. What that requires, of course, is discipline — something I’ve been sorely lacking!

Here’s the thing: For weeks, I had been writing an essay my mind, and occasionally in my journal. A piece that required me to only sit in front of a computer and think thoughtfully for a chunk of time. The problem was, with three kids, a husband, four jobs, and two ongoing workshops, well, I didn’t have a chunk of time!

So, I decided to approach my essay writing like any other assignment (to a degree). The key prop: A timer! But I’m jumping ahead. Allow me to back up and walk you through my process step by step.

  1. Be spontaneous. Don’t wait for the right time, or the best time, or the time when you have uninterrupted time. Just sit down with a pad of paper, or pull up a blank document, and go for it. You’ll hear people tell you to block out time in your calendar or make an appointment with yourself. If that works for you, GO FOR IT! If not, be spontaneous about it. Me? I wrote at the picnic table while my kids rode their bikes around me. I recorded notes on my phone will driving to the grocery store. I worked within the confines of my reality.
  2. Use a timer. If I could offer only one suggestion to alleviate writer’s block, it would be: Get yourself a timer. Theo Pauline Nestor addresses this in her book, Writing is My Drink (highly recommend, by the way). I’ve heard the same advice delivered on several writer’s podcasts (The Beautiful Writer’s Podcast frequently addresses this idea, but I can’t recall the specific episodes). The Cliff’s Notes: Set a timer for 15 minutes, or even 5, and put pen to paper. If you really want to get into the weeds on this, read “Working it Out.”
  3. Make a plan. I don’t mean plot out how you’re going to find the time, energy, enthusiasm, fill-in-the-blank, to write the essay, but make a plan to get the thing done. And come up with a really cool reward when you knock it out of the park.
  4. Build in accountability. Sometimes just telling someone you plan to write a story about X, Y, Z builds in a certain level of accountability. It could be a friend, a partner, a fellow writer. It doesn’t matter who it is, but it helps if the person will say, “hey, how’s that story coming along?”
  5. Be prepared to go off course. Starting an essay comes with its own set of risks. If you’re anything like me, once you really dig in, you can’t let go. I become like a dog with a meaty bone. I sink my teeth in, and I can’t release. So, yes, I started that essay, but then I became obsessed. I thought about it day and night, trying to figure out the crux of the story, word smithing paragraphs while I was half asleep, and jotting down notes at every opportunity. Despite a full workload, two contract positions with daily deliverables, and several students who want and deserve timely feedback, all I really wanted to do was write the damn story — and make it sing. Turns out, I’m well on my way.

This blog was originally published on July 7, 2020, at amypaturel.com


ABOUT AMY: Amy Paturel has been crafting essays for more than two decades and teaching personal essay writing for more than 15 years. Her personal and reported essays frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Discover, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and more. Two of her pieces were featured in Newsweek’s “My Turn” column, and she garnered two “honorable mention” awards in ASJA’s personal essay category (2009 and 2011).


CRAFT A BETTER ESSAY WITH AMY: Join Amy for a Charlotte Lit month long Studio Writing the Personal Essay beginning October 24th, online. This personal essay writing intensive will guide you through generating interesting essay ideas to a salable piece. More information here.

It’s ALL in the Details

Megan Rich

As writers, we often think about writing “universally” — whether that means connecting to universal human themes or attempting to reach the largest possible audience. In this, we sometimes fall into the trap of generalities, thinking that we need to speak to those themes directly or that we need to remain more objectively distant to increase our reach. But when reading, I’m often most struck by minute details– be it a beautiful concrete image, a punchy line of dialogue, or a character trait that feels both idiosyncratic and real. Could it be that the more specific we are, the more universal we are, too?

Our everyday experience, though sometimes monotonous or repetitive, is full of rich, specific detail. Be it the sound of cereal hitting the bottom of our morning bowl or the strange, muffled cry of a siren passing our car, specificity is the norm, not the exception. As a teacher, I often come across passages in burgeoning writer’s work that seem to replace those details with grand statements, often meant to create deep emotional experiences for their readers. The truth is, these generalities leave me feeling far less than a concrete detail might. Don’t tell me your character felt saddened by the sight of a long-lost friend; instead, let me see what he sees in her face, right there in front of him. Let me remember what she once looked like under the strange transformation of that face he hasn’t seen in so long. By embodying the concrete fact of her features, we will better feel his sadness in those changes because we, too, will have experienced this many times, perhaps even in the mirror, ourselves. The best writing will never have to tell us how a character feels, but will describe the people, places, and objects so vividly that we’ll know. It’ll be as if we walked into a dinner party and read the room ourselves– intuitively, based only on what we sense.

Just like in real life, we don’t usually go around asking or telling people how we feel, but rather, we see it in an expression, feel it in a movement, or hear it in the phrase a person chooses to say in a certain moment. These are the details that clue us into what’s really happening, under the surface, and at their best, a writer should show us the most telling details in every scene.


ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.


DIVE INTO THE DETAILS WITH MEGAN: Join Meg for the The Art of Detail, a 4-week studio immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.

Dialogue Versus Conversation

Paula Martinac

Paula Martinac

When I began my career as a fiction writer, my peers sometimes praised my “good ear” for dialogue. After publishing three novels, I gravitated to screenwriting and playwriting, and the shifts in form taught me that a good ear alone isn’t enough to craft believable dialogue. Being attuned to cadence and verbal tics is a start, but you also have to grasp that dialogue is the essence of speech rather than transcribed speech.

In fiction, dialogue helps drop the reader into the middle of the action with the characters. Every line has to pull its weight. For example, dialogue can reveal something about the character who is speaking or being spoken to, or even another character who is off-page or off-screen. In terms of plot, it can move the action forward or convey trouble ahead. It might give the story context by suggesting the time and place in which characters move around or by setting the mood. It might point to theme. And used gracefully, it can even insert a bit of backstory.

Screenwriters disparage “on the nose” dialogue, also called exposition. It crops up in all forms of creative writing in lines like, “I’m angry at you,” “We’ve been married ten years,” or “I’ve never been good at sports.” Subtlety and subtext are a dialogue writer’s best friends. Through them, you parcel out information and emotion with muted strokes rather than a heavy hand. And sometimes, the absence of dialogue speaks volumes.

But what about plays? Plays are stories told in dialogue, so how can a playwright hack away at lines and still tell the story? The answer is, don’t confuse dialogue with conversations. If you pay attention to people’s actual conversations, you’ll find them full of repetition, meanderings, and mundane observations. You’ll also realize they aren’t full of the lofty monologues and speeches we too often burden our characters with.

Dont let the fear of getting your dialogue right” paralyze your early drafts. A lot of the grittiest work with dialogue will actually take place in revision. One favorite tool from my playwriting experience is the time-honored “table read,” when the lines the writer has committed to paper get read aloud by others—if you’re really lucky, by actors. With fiction, read your own work aloud as a smart auditory exercise that can catch when you veer into transcribed speech.


Paula Martinac is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. In 2019, she received a Literary Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. She teaches creative writing at UNC Charlotte.

*A longer version of this was originally published in the Spring 2021 newsletter of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

The Intimate Kinship of Genres

David Radavich

David Radavich

During this period of hyper-consciousness about genres and subgenres, bookstores, Amazon, and agents encourage us to think of “boxes” into which our writing can be put for purposes of marketing. Not surprisingly, we pay close attention to relatively small distinctions between intersecting forms of literature. What makes for a young adult novel—a teenage protagonist?  How do we place a prose poem, or the lyrics to a song?

But the classic genres—poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction—in fact bleed into each other relentlessly. In fact, I would argue that they not only borrow ruthlessly from each other but also contain each other. These genres all belong to the same family, the art of literature, and their differences are more due to mind-set and arena than to fundamental distinctions.

Take drama, for instance. It can be written in poetry or prose, but there is always a story. And that story bears a striking resemblance to most fiction, apart from the mechanics of enactment on stage. And as master analyst of theatre Sam Smiley has pointed out, even the most prose-driven plays ascend to poetry at the climax: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman moves into a new lyric dimension near the end.

Fiction, of course, contains the central elements of drama—plot, characterization, setting, thought, and conflict—even as it occurs on the page and in readers’ minds rather than under the proscenium arch. Like drama, fiction also incorporates a good deal of non-fictional elements, the classic instance being Moby Dick’s disquisitions on whales. But novels also include elements central to poetry—imagery, metaphor, rhythm, refrain—on a regular basis, to heighten awareness and increase impact.

Poetry is thought to be the “quiet,” interior genre most intimately tied to music.  But many poems tell stories of various lengths, even in particular stanzas, while narrative verse is commonly written and read. Every poem enacts tension between the speaker, the subject, onlookers, and the reader in an elaborate linguistic and semantic dance. Poems include perpetrators, spectators, conflicts, and most build to a climax as mini-dramas of thought and emotion.  Shakespeare’s sonnets include the speaker, the beloved (male and female), friends, the rival poet, each by turn scorned, castigated, pled with, or embraced. Lots of drama!

Incorporating narrative, drama, and at its best poetry, non-fiction hovers throughout as our basic source of information about weather, geography, flora, history, religion, and politics. In thinking about writing, it might help us to become more aware of the sibling genres to the one have chosen so that we can enrich and magnify our impact. Sacrifice and renewal, love and alienation, oppression and justice—deep human struggles appear in all genres, wearing our many faces of experience.


LEARN WITH DAVID: David Radavich leads “Dramatizing Your Poetry,” which considers the oft-ignored theatrical elements in poetry and examines a range of poems that demonstrate both the loud and the quiet conflicts inherent in poems. Thursday, October 22, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT DAVID: David Radavich is a poet, playwright, and essayist who has published companion epic narratives, America Bound (2007) and America Abroad (2019), along with six lyric collections, most recently Middle-East Mezze (2011) and The Countries We Live In (2014). If the pandemic passes, Cervena Barva Press will publish his new book, Here’s Plenty. Radavich’s more than 25 plays have been performed across the U.S., including six Off-Off-Broadway, and in Europe.  He has served as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, Charlotte Writers’ Club, and North Carolina Poetry Society, and currently administers the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.

Making Conscious Choices

In my Introduction to Fiction Writing class, I tell undergraduates that if they learn nothing else in our time together, I’d like them to absorb the idea that creative writing is about making choices. That means selecting everything from plot to characters to setting to POV to theme.

It doesn’t mean picking and choosing at random, although—as writer Lillian Li pointed out in a craft article for Glimmer Train—small choices like a character’s name or eye color might be arbitrary. Bigger decisions, affecting a character’s identity or culture, must be thought out.

This is especially important when a writer doesn’t have the same cultural experiences as the characters they write about—a more and more frequent occurrence. Most of us consider “write what (or who) you know” pretty limiting advice, and we want to include a broad cast in our writing. We want to be free to express our creativity.

Examining your intent doesn’t curb your creative powers, though; it can deepen them. Try asking yourself probing questions such as: As a white writer, why did I include this Black character in my story? What purpose does this gay character serve in a plot that centers on a straight couple? As an able-bodied person, can I tell the story of someone with a disability with depth, not pity?

When writers forget to examine the “why” behind these decisions—their intentions—mistakes often follow and the writing rings false. Now, “mistake” is an unforgiving term: “an action that is wrong,” according to one definition. Like most writers, I can get hung up on being “wrong.” If I give that enough space, it hovers over my writing desk and makes me feel like a failure.

In contrast, my wife recently pointed out that “error” comes from the Latin for “to wander,” and the idea intrigued me. When I think about wandering, I see myself getting lost and fumbling, maybe finding my way for a while but probably getting lost again. Next time, I’ll consult Google Maps or stop and ask for directions. The process sounds less final, less condemning.

To bring this metaphor home: If we as writers spent more time examining our intentions upfront, that could lead us to taking better paths, making conscious choices that humanize and flesh out all our characters, not just the ones who most resemble us. Our writing will still contain errors, that’s a given; but what we learn along the way may lead to stronger, more complex work.


STUDY CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT WITH PAULA: Paula Martinac leads the four-week studio “Creating Characters That Reflect Our World” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace experience in writing fiction or nonfiction that includes characters different from you in race, gender, sexuality, or other ways. Begins Sunday, October 18More info

ABOUT PAULA: Paula Martinac has published five novels and a book of short stories. In 2019, she received a Literary Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. She teaches fiction writing at UNC Charlotte.

The Schrödinger’s Cat of Writing: “Show, Don’t Tell”

“Show, don’t tell” is perhaps the most the famous, or infamous, instruction for writers. This reputation is deserved, as the phrase manages to be both absolutely right and dead wrong at the same time. It’s a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, and knowing whether the rule is dead or alive, in a manner of speaking, can significantly boost your writing.

Let’s first define our terms. To show is to render the action live on the page; when you show, the reader can see it happening right now. To tell is to summarize what happened, or to describe something that can’t be seen, such as thoughts.

On a sentence level, the cat lives: “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental truth. Rather than telling your reader “she was happy,” show her walking sprightly down the street, whistling, greeting passersby who look at her strangely. Have her call out, “Isn’t the day glorious?”

On a scene level, the cat’s dead: we must use both showing (here, known as being in immediate scene) and telling (also known as exposition). Here’s why: we don’t read just to see what happens; we read to see how characters experience what happens. That experience is both external—action you can see on the page—and internal—the world of the mind.

The balance of showing and telling on the scene level varies by genre—for instance, literary fiction and memoir will have more exposition than thrillers and mysteries. This balance will also vary widely inside a single book, because this is how writers control pacing. Showing moves the story forward in real time. Exposition (telling) is time travel: it lets us skip over the dull bits (car rides, baths, staring out of windows), flash back to an earlier time, or stop time entirely so that we can sit and listen to a character think.

This is easy to see for yourself. Open a novel or memoir and read a passage. Use a pencil to underline any exposition, while leaving the immediate scene plain. See how it goes back and forth? Repeat with another scene or two. Now, read those scenes and pay attention to the pacing. Note that the better it’s done, the less you notice it.

So: remember Schrödinger when you write, and know which “show, don’t tell” cat you’re playing with. On a sentence level, the cat purrs when you show action and emotion instead of telling. On a scene level, let the cat go: mix the showing and telling and step through your story at a pace you control—elegantly, maybe even invisibly to the reader, on ghost cat feet.


STUDY SCENES WITH PAUL: Paul Reali leads the four-week “Scene Studio” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace deep dive into what makes scenes work in novels, short stories, and memoirs. Begins Sunday, October 18, 2020More info

ABOUT PAUL: Paul Reali, co-founder of Charlotte Lit, is the co-author of Creativity Rising: Creative Thinking and Creative Problem Solving in the 21st Century. In addition, his work has been published in the Winston-Salem Journal, InSpine, Office Solutions, Lawyers Weekly, and others. His fiction has been awarded first place in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith and Ruth Moose Flash Fiction competitions, and he received a Regional Artist Project Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council in 2018. Paul has an M.S. in Creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, where he is the managing editor of ICSC Press.

Devil’s in the Details

Megan RichI find myself with a little extra time lately to notice things I don’t want to notice, like the dust on the bookshelves or that mole that I’m convinced has gotten bigger, hasn’t it? Details are what make life rich, but can also reveal so much about where a person (or character) is emotionally, mentally, and physically. The details that ring most true in writing are the ones we don’t notice at first in real life, the ones that emerge only when we have extra time and space to really look, listen, smell, and touch.

Looking back over scenes that fall flat, I notice more than not that the devil’s in the details: I haven’t successfully described a character’s facial expression (what would happen to the corners of her mouth?); I’ve revealed too much of an emotional truth but not enough of what we’d actually see there if we were standing alongside them; or I’ve attempted to set a scene with a few sweeping statements about the landscape, the weather, or the town gone dilapidated, but it’s all too abstract and grand to give a clear sense of the actual place, the concrete details that, when taken together, remind us of places we’ve been and known.

Each of these problems needs a different part of my brain to fix them: if I have underwritten, it is the right brain, that gardener that can sit so present for hours to admire the flowers; if it’s overwritten, it’s the patient, gloved hand of my left brain that will reveal the splendors again by pulling out the weeds. Both are a special kind of work; both are worthy of our admiration; and both are the work we put in as writers to revise a piece to its fruition.

It’s often these details—the ones that have fought their way through, draft-by-draft!—that bring our readers into our world. In fact, it brings the reader into their world, too. The harder we work to find the perfect concrete images for our scenes, the more the real world can shine again, too, in relation.

In times like this, when we’re cooped up in the same places, running like a record through our days, we’re primed to find the details that we might normally miss. Just the ones that make our writing feel true.


ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.


STUDY WITH MEGAN: Meg leads the new studio, The Art of Detail for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.

Bring on the Drama, Mama!

Ashley MemoryI don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. For example, suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back to her. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back in the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama exponentially. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her family by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank has just repossessed her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer builds sympathy for Mary by watching her react to events that might have crushed the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her reacting by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the great thing about adding more tension to our story is that it makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!


ABOUT ASHLEY: Through a little intuition but mostly blind luck, Ashley Memory has twice won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize and earned a Pushcart Prize nomination for her fiction. But it wasn’t until she delved deeply into the short stories she’d admired for years that she unlocked their winning formula. Using the techniques described in this class, Ashley wrote a story that won 1st Place in the 2019 Starving Writer’s Contest and appeared in County Lines: A Literary Journal. Through the years, her short stories and flashes have appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Cairn, Women on Writing, Carolina Woman, and numerous anthologies.


STUDY WITH ASHLEY: Ashley Memory leads the new Short Story Studio, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions.  More information is here.

Show and Tell

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.


One of the great lies of writing instruction is “show don’t tell.” The truth is, you’ll need both. Here’s a quick primer, and an activity to help you to understand and use showing and telling.

Showing is a catchier way of saying “in scene.” When we write in immediate scene, the action is happening on the page. If you’re writing dialogue, you’re in scene. If you want the reader to experience the moment, write in scene.

Telling is another way of saying “summary.” When we write in summary, we’re explaining. You will write in summary when you need to speed up time or to describe events or give information that doesn’t have to happen in real time. A good hint: when there is unnatural dialogue—two characters telling each other things they already know for the reader’s benefit (“Well, brother, I know we’ve been estranged since Dad died and Mom ran off with the church organist…”)—that’s a good sign it should have been told in summary.

It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. This can be true even in a single paragraph, where some of what happens is live and some is summarized.

Here’s your prompt for the week, adapted from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, which is used as the textbook in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.

  1. Think about something you witnessed in the past week or month. You could be a bystander or involved in the event.
  2. Take 15 minutes to write a pure narration (telling) version of the event.
  3. Take another 15 minutes and re-write the event using only immediate scene (showing).
  4. Write a version that combines the parts that are best shown and those that are best told.