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Exercise: Action!

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

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 the 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 relationship.

Critics should tell us what they think of the characters, based on these actions.

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 submissions 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, so 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.