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IWW Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: Every picture tells a story

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: March 8, 2003
Reposted on: January 11, 2004
Reposted on: January 16, 2005

"One picture is worth more than ten thousand words." (Chinese proverb)

"Every picture tells a story." (source unknown)

There is a lot of truth in the sayings above. Conversely, readers and writers know how a few well-chosen words can draw a detailed picture. This exercise tries to merge those ideas.

Often, a scene, a photo, a drawing, can tell an entire story - without any action, any words, any interpretation or explanation. You might have such scenes in your memories.

As an example: a few years ago, I was visiting a cemetery in Buffalo, reputed for a number of famous graves and impressive monuments. But two images stuck in my mind...

In the mausoleum section, on a stone with a man's name (with a military rank, as I recall), were scotch-taped a hand-drawn father's day card, and a photo of a young boy.

In another part of the cemetery, a neatly tended grave, with fresh flowers and a topiary (a small shrub carefully sculpted into a spiral). The single gravestone had the names of two men, both in their thirties, who had died months apart.

In either case, how much can we imagine of the lives of the people involved, of what they had meant to the people in their lives? Could I write a novel to evoke such emotions? (Yet, I hope I have done this, in two short paragraphs.)

So here is the exercise: in 100 to 300 words, describe a scene that evokes an entire story. This can be a scene you witnessed, or one you imagine. Use simple descriptive language, and remember to show, not tell!

While my examples above describe scenes without people, this is not an exercise requirement - but if you do include people, remember to describe a single moment in time, as if you had only a photo of the scene.

When critiquing, look at what you imagined from the scene. Also, look at the writing: what parts of it were most successful at creating those images? What, if anything, got in the way of the image - the author intruding with interpretation; a lack of detail, or too much detail; etc.

Exercise clarification:

I guess my exercise description wasn't clear enough...

The intent of the exercise is to describe a static scene, without action - a picture, like a photograph or a painting. The parts of the exercise that were supposed to make this clear are:

   Often, a scene, a photo, a drawing, can tell an entire story -
   without any action, any words, any interpretation or explanation.


   if you do include people, remember to describe a single moment in
   time, as if you had only a photo of the scene.

In spite of this, I am getting submissions with more action than a Jackie Chan movie. I'm kind of curious why - was I really that unclear, or are we so geared to having action at all costs?

So, to clarify: the intention is to capture a single moment in time - without action or explicit movement. (Implied movement is fine - in fact desired - the goal is to have the moment suggest the actions surrounding the scene to the reader.)

Therefore, when writing a submission, remember that you are looking for a single revealing moment, from which the reader can figure out the entire scene.

When critiquing, then, look for any sign that the author is "cheating" by describing an action explicitly.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: March 16, 2003

It's been a most interesting week (well it always is, but particularly so this weekend), and one with some surprises for all of us.

First, it was very hard for many of the members to do a static scene (or a frozen snapshot in the middle of an action scene). Certainly, we are told, repeatedly, to use action, to use active verbs, to avoid passive writing - and that is good advice. But like any advice, it's only good to a point: we can't write just action action action.

The second lesson, pretty much the one I was aiming at in the first place, is that often "less is more". If we give the reader too much information, we leave nothing to the imagination - and the imagination is where a story really takes place.

Because we allowed re-submissions (just for this week), we were able to see this at play more clearly: the later versions tended to be much more sparse, focusing on a few significant details, and were thus more evocative, letting the readers fill in the blanks. The idea of the significant detail is an important one, and I hope this exercise helped us better understand this concept (it's one the best writers have mastered, so well that it's hard to see it at work!)

Beyond that, as always, I was interested in the variety of approaches. Some of the scenes conveyed highly dramatic events, others small moments of "ordinary" life. Some scenes started by describing a broad scene, then zoomed in on one or two details; others started with the details and built up to the bigger scene. Both worked, both have their place - and each achieves a different result, in the end.

What was interesting in many of the submissions is what was left out: not mentioned at all, yet fully present by implication. Often, the absence of something is as significant, or even more, than what *is* present (or shown).

Sometimes, the submissions suffered from authorial intrusion: the writer simply saying what was going on instead of showing it. This could be as broad as editorializing, telling us what a scene *meant*, or as small as attaching a label to name something: something as simple as saying "the mother" or "the father", which implied background knowledge not present in the scene itself. Again, can we demonstrate the relationship instead of just declaring it, can we trust the reader to understand that if we present a man and a young girl in a certain context, they are likely father and daughter? How would the scene differ between that relationship and, say, if the two were strangers?

I hadn't realized when I wrote this exercise just how challenging it would turn out to be (but that's not a bad thing, after all it's why we're here.) That challenge is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that on the Archives web page, I put that exercise under "Miscellaneous" - not because it doesn't fit into any of the other categories, but because it crosses categories, including elements of show-versus-tell, setting, story-telling, characterization, etc.

I look forward to running this exercise again in the future - now on to the next one!


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: January 22, 2004

Wow - what an explosion of activity last week! I don't have the actual stats, but it has to have been one of our busiest weeks ever

The results were similar to the first time we ran the exercise, in terms of how people approached the exercise, and how successful they were. Once again, many were unable to avoid action (sometimes a lot of action); in many cases, the critiques pointed out a single image from the described scenes which could be use to summarize the whole.

Another common problem was authorial intrusion, or POV problems - the writer telling the reader some of the information (in some cases, information not present in the picture being drawn.) For example, a number of submissions made statements about what had happened just before the moment being described, rather than letting the reader see the signs of that. In the same way, in some submissions, the writer interpreted events or named objects - think of the use of a word like "expensive" for example. Is that a quality that would be obvious to a casual observer (and if so how)? Is that bit of information even needed?

One key to the most successful submissions was what details were presented to build up the picture. Too much detail drowns the reader and loses focus; too little leaves the reader adrift not knowing what's going on. Learning this balance is a key skill for writers.

There was also a bit of confusion about how to interpret the exercise requirement to describe a single moment. For example, can a static scene contain odors or tastes? (Answer: yes, as long as those are static, not changing.) Similarly, is it violating the exercise restriction to say, for example, that “John walked”? Possibly - but not necessarily. If the character isn't leaving or arriving somewhere, but in transit, then having that character walk can still represent a single moment during that walk. But that's kind of pushing the limit of the exercise...

To conclude, the key to this exercise is how well we can visualize a scene, then pick out the significant details. This is a key skill for any writer, in any form or genre of writing! So think about your submission, and the other submissions you read, and try to see how we can improve our ability to imagine and portray a scene.

All in all, some very good work, and I hope everyone who participated learned something new (or even better, relearned something old!)


Patricia Johnson 's wrap-up
Posted on: Fri, 28 Jan 2005

Many comments were made about how tough it is to write a successful scene for the Every Picture exercise. This week's critiques brought up many interesting discussion points. For instance, without authorial intrusion there is more room for reader interpretation of a scene. Having people in the scene was hard to detail and still follow the exercise requirements. Some writers thought the most effective way to complete the exercise would be to exclude using people altogether. Someone noted that the subs that most closely follow the exercise requirements tended to be poetic, prose poems.

Several writers said it was difficult to describe a scene without action and using no telling, only showing. Most scenes require action to make them interesting.

The nature of the exercise opened story interpretation more to the reader. Layering of description enabled readers to reach their own conclusions of what could have happened in the scenes. Someone mentioned that a static description is a lot different than something that has movement, and even descriptions without action can and should move. Using the imaginative lead-in wording "as if" allows for writing the exercise more as a scene and less as a photo snapshot.

How do the senses of touch, sound and smell relate to the exercise requirements? A bowl of brown shriveled apples with a fly upon them are different smelling than a bowl of apples with dew and stems and leaves of chartreuse. Totally different smells are evoked in the reader from those two descriptions -- rotting wine pungency versus tart spring-apple scent. It would seem that evoking certain senses without authorial interpretation can be achieved.

I think that the author can mention some forms of movement and reference certain action and verbs without intruding or using his/her imagination to interpret. Perhaps the keys are the 'one moment in time' concept and Rhéal's idea that 'the goal is to have the moment suggest the actions surrounding the scene' to the reader. The stopped action of scenes and photos can be described, as noted in the two following examples. A book falling off a shelf caught in mid-fall is certainly not described by anyone as 'flying off into the sunset', a hand slapping a face as the person is caught rebounding is not seen as a 'love-pat', a curtain "standing" out from a window indicating wind and movement (surely no one would starch a curtain to stand out from a window).

Thanks to every one for participating in the exercise and making it a good practice experience.


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