Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 8 Jul 2001
Reposted on: Sun, 11 Jul 2004
The exercise deals with a form of "show
don't tell". It's a familiar
adage that actions speak louder than words. In particular, some words
have been used so often as to have practically lost all meaning. Think
of the following phrases we might come across while writing or reading:
he was nice to me
she was a loving mother
she was an abusive mother
we have fun together
he looked at me funny
she was a timid soul
All deal with strong concepts, but in weak
ways - we don't get a
specific image. Such phrases have been used and overused and have lost
much of their power. (A clue to the weakness of those phrases is in the
verbs used: was, have, look.) In most cases, it would be better to
replace those with an action or two *showing* the concept.
For example, how was he "nice to me"? Did
he buy her roses, or do
dishes without being asked? What does a loving mother do, or an abusive
one? A proper action can show "nice" or "loving" or "abusive", but even
more, it can tell us something about both characters involved. The man
doing the dishes may have a more practical nature, or he may know that
the woman appreciates concrete help rather than symbolic gestures.
Here's the exercise: in 300 words or less,
write a scene where a
character demonstrates, through action, traits like "nice" or "loving"
or any similar traits (not restricted to the list above). Through this,
we should learn about the two people involved and about their
Critics should tell us what they think of
the characters, based on
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Sun, 15 Jul 2001
I must admit that this week was something
of an eye-opener for me. I
wrote the exercise with the assumption that I was dealing with a fairly
straight-forward concept. Hmm, far from it, as the submissions
proceeded to demonstrate!
The concept was that a concept like "nice"
or "abusive" could be
translated into a neat little scene that would simply show the concept
rather than telling about it.
The reality is both richer and trickier
than this. As the
proved, using significant actions to reveal character traits leads to
something much richer, much more subtle, and the use of telling words
like the ones above. Many of the submissions showed well-defined
characters who could not be simplified back to a single word. We saw
degrees of "niceness", for example, which could never have been
expressed by the word "nice" itself.
Some of the submissions also showed that
such characterization is
subject to interpretation. To use an example (not from any of the
subs), what does it mean if a man gives a woman a rose? Is he
expressing love? Feeling guilt? Doing it because it's expected?
Scheming to gain the lady's favours? In such an example, the reader
would need additional clues. (Note, by the way, that this allows the
use of ambiguity - which is sometimes of value. For example, if this
was told from the point of view of the woman, she herself might be
asking herself those questions, and not be able to decide right away,
the reader would share her uncertainty.)
So, good work, everyone - I like it when
the results of one of my
exercises teach me something I hadn't expected!
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.