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Exercise: I'm from Missouri

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: August 11, 2002
Reposted on: August 22, 2004

(Note: for those not familiar with what the title of this exercise means... Missouri is know as the "Show-me state; as a result, the expression "I'm from Missouri" has evolved to mean "show me".)

This is an updated version of an exercise first run in July 2001 (you can find that exercise at http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/pw27.shtml). (In particular, you might want to check out the wrap-up for that exercise.)

In writing (or speech, for that matter), we often use descriptive adjectives: nice, mean, pretty, odd, evil, etc. Now, there's nothing wrong with those words as such, but if we overuse them the effect becomes bland and generic. What does "nice" mean, for example? Do we mean someone who gives up a seat on the bus to a senior citizen, someone who spends hours volunteering in the community, someone who says pleasant things (without necessarily following up with any specific actions)? If we say a husband is nice, for example, do we mean he remembers anniversaries, or that he does the dishes on a regular basis without being asked? As we can see, "nice" can mean making symbolic gestures, or performing specific actions. The same concept applies to all such descriptive words: they describe a wide range, and aren't specific.

There's a saying to the effect that "actions speak louder than words". Instead of simply describing a character as "nice" (or "mean", or whatever), it is often more effective to show the character in action, in such a way that the character traits emerge on their own.

Now, we like to give specific examples in our exercises, but this time I'll turn things around - after all, one of the things we're trying to learn is to see how others have done something. So this exercise will be in two parts.

First, find an example (in a novel, short story, movie, TV show, even in non-fiction) where character is demonstrated through action - by showing, not telling. Either provide the relevant quote (if your example is from a printed work), or a description of the scene (if from film or television.) Tell us what you learn about the character from the actions described or portrayed. Ideally, you can do this in 200 words or less.

Second, write your own example (in 300 words or less, preferably) of a scene involving two people (or more, if you can handle the additional complexity under the word limit), where we learn about one or both characters from the actions, without directly telling us anything about either character.

When critiquing a submission, feel free to comment on the example provided, telling what impression you got of the characters involved. For the second part of the submission, give your impression of the people involved, as it emerges from the action. Point out any occurrences of direct telling, and suggest (if you can) how that might have been shown instead.

Note that when we did the first version of this exercise, we learned that when showing through action, it becomes hard to narrow things down to a single character trait. For example, if I write an submission showing someone being "nice", what will emerge will likely be a more complex image - perhaps even an ambiguous portrayal (which can be good in some cases, or a problem in others - it depends on the author's intent. Sometimes it's good to leave some doubt as to whether a generous gesture, for example, was motivated by kindness or by self-interest; at other times we do want to have the character emerge more clearly.)

This is a challenging exercise, but one from which we can learn quite a bit about writing as we work at it!

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: August 21, 2002

A very interesting week.

First off, I enjoyed seeing the variety of quotes people found to show how character can be revealed through action. Good work on that part of the exercise! (I'll have to make this a part of exercises again in the future.)

Certainly, it is important for writers to learn to spot good (and bad) examples when we read.

The submissions were as varied as ever, and on the whole demonstrated well how we can develop and show character through action and dialogue. I was struck in particular by the fact that when we use action and dialogue, we almost always wind up developing all the characters involved, not just the central character.

As a follow-up, I suggest we all pay attention - in what we write, read, and even what we experience in life - to see examples of how character emerges from action.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Tue, 7 Sep 2004

A good week, with a good variety of submissions and critiques.

Still, the most interesting post, to me, was a post to Writing about the exercise, discussing showing versus telling (and also raising indirect questions about the goals of the exercises, which I will address lower down.)

Here is one extract (by the way, I did obtain permission from that member to use his message in my wrap-up):

   Recently I read passages in several old novels--Alcott, Cervantes,
   Dickens, Cather, and some others. The amount of "telling" those
   authors do is striking. [...] It would be hard for a reader to mistake
   anything. Nobody could doubt that Don Quixote is off his nut--the
   author keeps telling us he is.

Yes, Cervantes does tell us that. However, when we remember that book, what do we remember? Do we remember Cervantes telling us Don Quixote is a nut - or do we remember scenes like the attack on the windmill, which show us just how much a nut he really is? (Frankly, when I read that novel, as great as it is, I do find myself skimming the blocks of exposition, but reading the action scenes with great attention. That, to me, is where Don Quixote comes to live - through his actions, not through the explanations of the author.)

Here's another excerpt from that post:

   I haven't written a lot of fiction, and am still rather puzzled about
   this. I want my readers to know exactly what I want them to know, if
   you know what I mean. I don't want two readers to interpret a story
   in different ways--except sometimes, when I want to leave them
   puzzled, which I sometimes feel like doing, and which Hemingway
   obviously wanted to do in that story.

That's an interesting goal - but I'll simply claim that it's an impossible one. At some point, we have to leave off and let the reader's imagination takes place - because that's where the story lives, isn't it? If we put in too much explanation, we lose the reader's interest, the reader's sense of involvement. And even with a lot of explanation, readers will still draw their own mental pictures. Trust me: put in two pages of text describing your character's physical appearance, and you'll still have some readers picturing that character with different hair colouring, or different height or weight - because the readers will not absorb all that information, or even will have already formed a mental picture of the character in the very first reference.

I also wonder if it's really possible to really tell what a character is feeling. If I write "John was angry, so angry he wanted to hit someone" - well that's pretty clear, I guess, but again, different readers will interpret that in different ways. Anger covers a broad spectrum of emotions, arises from a variety of causes. And wanting to hit someone - is the character really about to do that, or just not? Which someone - anyone, or some specific people?

A final excerpt from that post:

   So, getting back to the Practice exercise, I wish I could ask each
   author: Did the critters understand what you wrote? Did they get it
   all, including the more subtle indications? Do you care if some saw
   one thing, and some another? Or do you feel misunderstood? Is
   "show" that important? Or is "tell" equally significant?

Here, we get down to the purpose of this list. Yes, that exercise was about showing rather than telling. That doesn't mean writers can never tell - sometimes we have to, sometimes it's the most efficient way. But each exercise must, by definition, target one aspect of writing. (For example, when we run a poetry exercise, this is no way invalidates writing prose!)

As for how the writer reacts to the critiques - well again, remember the purpose of the exercise. What matters isn't whether the writer met the exercise goal precisely, but whether we learn from the submissions. And often, we'll learn a lot more when we read a critique and think "that's not what I meant to do!" - that's when we can think "how can I do this better next time?" (Of course, we also learn when our reaction to a critique is "yes, that's just what I intended!")

So yes, we must weigh showing versus telling - keeping in mind that the reader is more likely to remember what is shown than what is told, just as we remember the windmills in Don Quixote, but not the author's long explanations.


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.