Tell It Slant – An Alternative to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’

Sophie Playle

American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’ Following this advice can bring vividness and originality to your prose. Here’s how.

You need descriptive writing in your novel so that the reader can accurately picture the scene, but descriptions can often fall flat.

Choosing the right details helps create a clear and vivid image, but writers don’t have the time or the capacity to describe every little thing in minute detail. Plus, that would be super boring for the reader. Why? Because not only will it take up a lot of time in which the plot will be standing still, but often what you might describe will already be familiar to the reader … which is boring.

Your reader won’t learn anything new or experiencing anything interesting if you spend seventeen pages describing every object in a room, the dimensions of every piece of furniture or the exact shade of every character’s eyes. Yes, you might create a very precise picture this way, but its vividness – its aliveness – will be smothered.

Vividness and originality is created through detail, but not by describing every detail. It’s created by describing a select few details – told slant.

What does it meant to tell something ‘slant’?

To tell something ‘slant’ means to describe something in a new way, from a slightly off-centred perspective; the thing being described is made unfamiliar by the act of looking at it differently.

Here’s an example. You might say: The moon was shining.

That’s pretty clear. It’s pretty succinct. But it’s not very interesting. It’s not very vivid. So instead let’s tell is slant by slightly altering our perspective and choosing some details described in a way that makes them feel unfamiliar and interesting.

On the dam of the mill a fragment of broken bottle flashed like a small bright star, and there rolled by, like a ball, the black shadow of a dog.

Anton Chekhov

In this sentence, we get the impression that the moon is shining, but it’s not directly stated. Instead, it’s shown indirectly (at a slant) through specific details made interesting through their interpretation (they’ve been made unfamiliar) – a piece of broken glass becomes a flashing star when the moonlight interacts with it; the shadow of a dog is given the quality of a rolling ball. Do we normally think about a dog’s shadow in this way? No – but the description works beautifully, and so a familiar image has been made new.

The problem with ‘show, don’t tell’

This piece of writing advice is often summarised as ‘show, don’t tell’, which encourages writers to avoid explaining what’s happening in a story and instead provide visuals that demonstrate what’s happening. The Chekhov quote above is more widely know in its recast version:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekhov

However, it’s pretty easy to misinterpret the advice ‘show, don’t tell’. It can lead writers to think they must show everything all the time. But fiction is more than a string of images. It’s more than a visual unfolding of action that plays out in the mind’s eye. A novel isn’t like a film that we imagine. One of the main differences and advantages of the novel is that it portrays a story through the lens of human experience.

So should you ‘show’ or should you ‘tell’? Both are necessary, and balance is key. But because of the ambiguity of this piece of advice, I think it’s much more useful to think in terms of selecting the right details and telling them slant.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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