3 Steps For Creative Writers to Tell it Slant

Who’s up for a little creative insight from Emily Dickinson?

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
Emily dickinson

Emily Dickinson, whose words have given creative nonfiction writers a phrase that says everything it needs to say in three simple words.

When I started my MFA in Writing program nearly two years ago, instructors kept insisting I “tell it slant.” I had no idea what they were talking about. But I’ve come to understand that telling it slant is a key to elevating solid nonfiction writing to creative nonfiction. It is a touchstone of CNF, but the approach serves fiction writers as well.

The notion of telling it slant is that you highlight details that advance the reader’s understanding of what the writer is seeking to convey. The goal could be a better understanding of the narrator’s emotional state, a glimpse into the narrator’s past, or a foreshadowing of what is to come. It is, to drag out a trope that is a bit more familiar to us, a way to show, not tell.

This is an important point for CNF writers, because in many cases we are encouraged to show. Some of the greatest essays ever written have large passages where the narrator is simply speaking his or her mind. In the blogging class I teach, we spend some time on “telling.” But for a CNF writer to paint a scene in the way a fiction writer can, one needs to tell it slant, as follows:

  1. Identify your objective. In the travel memoir I’m writing in my MFA program, I have a scene in which I find myself concerned for my own safety. It is, obviously, a scene in which the narrator’s anxiety level rises to troubling heights. As the author, I wanted to create a sense of anxiety before the narrator finds himself  trapped in a troubled individual’s basement. So that was my objective: creating anxiety in the reader.
  2. Choose the details that will advance the objective: Fiction writers can make up any detail they please. CNF writers are bound by the details that are there. As Dickinson says, we must tell the truth. But a CNF writer constantly makes choices as to what details to include. For this scene, I chose to highlight a moment when I arrived at the house in question, and saw someone on a neighboring porch: “A man in a wide-brimmed fishing hat and wrap-around sunglasses stares at me from his concrete porch, an oxygen tank on wheels beside him. I can’t see his eyes. The man breathes in deeply when I exit the car, but then I cross the street away from his house, and he visibly exhales.” I’ll explain why I made this selection and wrote it the way I did in the next item.
  3. Slant the description of the detail you’ve selected: I could have written that the man wore a colorful shirt, was drinking iced tea, and appeared to be enjoying a warm afternoon in the shade of his porch. Instead I emphasized only his staring with unseen eyes, and his breathing, which the oxygen tank signals to the reader would sound unnatural and forced. This man does not appear again in the story. But his three sentences form the first of many more such slanting details I include over the next two pages.

When I wrote this chapter about eight months ago, I shared it with my local writer’s group.  All five of them volunteered that they felt creeped out before there appeared to be reason for that feeling. They weren’t sure why, but as they pored over the prose, they focused on the oxygen-breathing man, as well as other details, such as thick red curtains blocking out light, and the minimal open space in the windowless basement room. Not once do I have the narrator tell the reader that he is anxious, but I didn’t have to. The reader was already in that state. It was all part of my effort to, as Ms. Dickinson put it, allow the Truth to dazzle.

I’m still a novice at telling it slant. But there are some good resources that have much more to say, including Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in the appropriately titled Tell it Slant, and Sue William Silverman (my MFA advisor this semester) in Fearless Confessions.

CNFers: Is this a tool you’ve sought to bring into your prose? Fiction writers: How would you compare telling it slant to showing not telling?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

21 Responses to “3 Steps For Creative Writers to Tell it Slant”

  1. My copy of Tell It Slant it well used (and well loved). It’s a great book. I especially love the writing exercises and the essays in the back. Another good resource is Writing True by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz.
    Also, when I first heard the words “tell it slant” to describe CNF, I felt as though I was finding a piece of myself that snapped into place.

  2. I love this method, and I love the phrase. I’d never heard “tell it slant” before, but I think I may adopt it. This seems equally useful to literary fiction writers. Thanks for the tip, Patrick!

    • It’s similar. My example could be considered foreshadowing, at least in terms of mood. I would suggest it is also a tool for building metaphor. I have a scene I just wrote about a month ago where I was building a metaphor around water, so naturally I was focusing on including water elements that I could highlight in that scene. But then I presented them in a way that built on the theme. So in wanting to talk about forward movement, I focused on the current moving in the stream, as opposed to some other element, such as its width, or the sun gleaming off of it, etc.

  3. Yes, Patrick, I`m grateful to have this writing term in my arsenal: “Write slant.” I recently wrote of a traveler, a pilgrim, who noticed on the way up through a strange town, how the cats were getting bigger and darker and how they seemed to be watching him. All in aid of horror farther up. Or is that just foreshadowing? I like your notion of building details into a larger metaphor. Someone once said that you can’t just take off with a metaphor… you have to first taxi to the runway. Readers should have a chance to see it coming.

    • Yes to your use of cats, a creative and compelling way to tell it slant. As for the foreshadowing question, as sorrygnat asked, I guess I think of foreshadowing as setting up an upcoming turn in the story. I think you could argue that setting mood and building metaphor are a bit different than that.

      Oh, and love the metaphor about metaphor, PJ!

      You probably noticed that you are my muse for this post. It was our exchange about telling it slant in my previous post that prompted me to write this.

  4. “Not once do I have the narrator tell the reader that he is anxious, but I didn’t have to. The reader was already in that state.”

    Yes, I think you’re right on!. “Anxious,” to me, is a summary/subjective word. Here you’ve created a reason for the reader to feel anxious (in his or her particular way) along with the narrator. You’ve certainly created a mood with your choice. Perhaps you’ve also foreshadowed in the following way: I get a sense of darkness and constriction from the man … because of his veiled eyes and breathing machine. Both which could foreshadow the basement.

    Yes, I’ve used this in my fiction and CNF. When I read a manuscript that’s full of vibrant detail … but appears episodic … it’s often because detail has been placed in for the sake of itself, rather than to propel the story forward in some way.

    Thank you for allowing me to revisit Dickinson’s poem. Haven’t read the whole thing in years.

    • Hi Terri! Yes, thank you for connecting the use of foreshadowing here, a word that is popping up in the comments.

      “When I read a manuscript that’s full of vibrant detail … but appears episodic … it’s often because detail has been placed in for the sake of itself, rather than to propel the story forward in some way.”

      Exactly! I’m revising my WIP now, with a laser focus of removing detail that doesn’t advance the story. This morning I deleted a mention of a field full of hundreds of porta-potties I drove past in New Hampshire. In my original draft, I had opened with them. In a later draft, I made passing mention of them. But there is nothing in the chapter I want the reader to associate with, well, a porta-potty, so I took it out.

      In journalism, we talk about reporters having to kill their own babies. A harsh way of putting it, but sometimes that part you love so much needs to go. I remind myself the reader will never miss what she didn’t know was originally there.

  5. Excellent post, Patrick. I love the “tell it slant” concept and also heard yesterday was Dickinson’s birthday. Did you plan that? A serendipitous coincidence if not. I especially liked your point about the need to pick and choose which facts to include. As a journalist, I learned how that can slant the objectivity of any article; most readers don’t realize it, and sadly most journalists don’t recognize the power they hold.

    In writing historical fiction, I also had to learn how to pick and choose what facts I include and what I make up. While including historical detail and facts lends authenticity, that can also detract from the story and weigh it down pretty quickly. It’s a delicate balance. I think that’s true of all writing. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Hi Jessica! Um, had no idea it was Emily’s birthday. I had a one in 366 (Leap Year) chance of posting on her birthday, which are better odds than most lotteries, right? :)

      Thank you for bringing in the journalism angle. What you say about being able to slant a story is so true, from which sources they quote, how they quote them, how the story is structured. That’s why editors are so important, because they can edit bias out of stories (although they may introduce their own). But editors are being laid off, and journalists increasingly are encouraged to report with bias because it appeals to niche audiences, and… oh dear, it’s my modern media rant about our digital hollows. Another post!

      What I love about the writing you do is that while your story is fictional, it must be “true” to the actual world in which you set the story. That does indeed bring you in line somewhat with a CNF writer. When I read your novel, I fully felt like I was in that time. So yes, I can see that you were telling it slant with that writing.

  6. Patrick, fabulous post. You’ve concisely summed up a key difference between straight reporting and creative nonfiction. One basically keeps the reader outside and the other brings the reader inside. Bravo!
    Luanne

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