Show, Don’t Tell Exercise
Choose one or more of the following situations and write several paragraphs to show the story instead of tell it. Remember to include what the characters are thinking, saying, and doing.
My writers’ critique group, Southern Scribes, is doing this exercise. You can join them by doing it.
1. Claudia felt very happy when the Doctor told her she was pregnant.
This example comes from Claire Buckingham from Invercargill, New Zealand:
Dr. Langstrom stopped in the hallway. Nurses bustled from room to room all around him, some with confused patients trailing in their efficient wakes. A woman came barrelling out the door, crashing straight into him. Fortunately he had enough bulk to stop himself from falling under her slight weight, though she still nearly fell. He caught her slim shoulders before she could. “Whoa. Whoa. Slow down. What’s wrong?”
Like a mouse caught in the talons of a hunting owl, the woman stared up at him with her mouth hanging open. Her beauty seemed fragile, with too large eyes and a pale face framed by Rosetti-esque curls. She wasn’t as young as her size implied, but she still couldn’t be much older than thirty.
Then that didn’t matter, because she hugged him.
His words were cut off by her kisses. The first fell upon one cheek, the next on the other. “It’s happened! It’s finally happened!”
“I have to tell him.” A bright pink cell phone waved in his face, though he noted she cradled her free arm about her abdomen. “I’m not supposed to use this in here, right? I better go outside, ’cause I just have to tell him now! It’s just…I can’t believe it!”
The woman then all but danced down the corridor, phone in one hand and the other pressed against her middle. To his eyes, it seemed as if she held all the world’s most precious treasures just there. On her way the woman again attack-hugged a startled patient, though the elderly gentleman seemed more inclined to just enjoy it compared to the bamboozled surgeon.
Then a nurse darted out of the same door. “Mrs. Green?” she called, and then frowned as she looked both ways. “Mrs. Green? Claudia?”
“Is she pregnant?”
“What?” The nurse’s attention flicked to him, and then her eyes widened. “Dr. Langstrom, what are you doing down here?”
“Having a break,” he replied, rubbing his temple. “But your Claudia–is she pregnant? Because if so, she went that way.”
This example comes from Adrian McDonald in Invercargill, New Zealand:
(Claudia’s husband has recently died.)
“I take it then that this is not unwelcome news.”
Claudia gasped. “Oh, doctor. When you first came in I was sure you were going to tell me I wasn’t pregnant. Now I will have something of John and me to love and cherish and remember for a long, long time to come. Thank you doctor. After everything this week, it is the very best possible news.”
Claudia practically danced out of the doctor’s offrice and up to the counter to pay her account.
2. Arnie had been bullied at school and didn’t want to go back.
This is from Abigail Prigge, Whitewater, Kansas:
Arnie crumbled his report card and tossed it in the waste basket. His bruised, black eyes filled. Straight A’s just didn’t cut it. What did he care if teachers beamed on his homework sheets, when he needed just one true friend? He glared at himself in the mirror. And who would speak to the picked-on — the outcast? The school bus honked outside, but Arnie just pulled a pillow over his head.
Here’s my example:
Arnie turned the electric blanket to high and pulled two duvets over his head. The heat threatened to smother him, but he could endure the heat better than the taunts he got at school.
“Little Arnie Big Ears. Hey Arnie, do those big ears of your work as radio antennae?”
“Maybe that’s why he has all the math answers. Or maybe his brains are in his ears and that’s why they stick out so much.”
“Arnie thinks he’s a genius—thinks he’s better than us. Who wants to be a genius if you have to look like Dumbo?”
“If he’s such a genius, why can’t he figure out what we’re gonna do to him if he keeps getting such good grades that the teacher makes her tests harder.”
Arnie poked his head and one hand out of the covers. His hand blushed a bright red. It was time.
“Mom,” he moaned. “Mom. I’m sick. I’ve got a terrible fever!”
Arnie’s mom shuffled into the room in her fuzzy slippers. She frowned and touched his flaming face. “You are hot! You know what I think you ought to do?”
Arnie groaned pitifully. “What?”
She sat beside him on the bed, frowning deeper. Then a smile tickled her lips. “Well, for starters, you can turn your electric blanket off. Anyone would feel sick in a bed as hot as this.”
3. Nigel was devastated. He felt guilty for causing the car accident which killed a little girl.
This is from Abigail Prigge:
Nigel leaned his head against the steering wheel. It had been three days since the car accident. It hadn’t helped to come to the funeral — the funeral that was his fault. He pressed his forehead even harder against the wheel. A deafening bleep sounded in the still air. His head shot up. Now that was the last thing that was supposed to happen . . . Nigel bit his lip. The parents of the little girl now buried, were just shuffling past to their own car. The father jumped over and kicked Nigel’s front bumper. He led the girl’s weeping mother on. Nigel had no choice but to start his car and drive off — to his new life. Life where he would have to accept that he was a murderer.
Here’s my example:
Nigel slammed on the brakes harder than was necessary. It was her! The girl crossing the sidewalk. Blond ponytail, pink leggings, purple backpack. It was Sophie Pascoe, the little angel he had killed!
But no. Sophie had a yellow backpack. Sophie was taller. Sophie was dead. Talking on the cellphone and driving were a lethal mix. One moment Nigel had been a nice guy. One cellphone conversation had turned him into a killer.
4. Lucy thought her father would never accept her decision to quit university. He didn’t respect her ability as an artist.
This is from Abigail Prigge:
Lucy repositioned in her seat, and chewed the insides of her cheeks. She stole a glance up at her dad who occupied the chair beside her. Students in blue robes and square hats marched past them. Lucy’s father had his eyes fixed on his oldest son Rob. Lucy followed his gaze. Rob looked so proud. And he should be. He would make a fine doctor. She grinned at him, even though he was busy shaking hands with all the professors. Lucy turned the graduation program to the back and sketched her brother’s form. She squinted — just a little shading there — perfect! Lucy felt eyes on her, and glanced up — her father was frowning. Lucy sighed. I know I could be up there too, Daddy! But I don’t want a diploma, as long as my hand can draw. Lucy slapped her program to the other side. Would he ever understand her decision?
Here’s my example:
People sauntered past the pictures, whispering comments.
“I could paint a picture like that. So could my five-year-old daughter.”
“What’s that thing supposed to be anyway? I don’t get this modern art.”
“Well at least the colors are nice. It would match the curtains in our rumpus room.”
Lucy stood to one side, studying the picture. The comments bounced off her leaving only the smallest of bruises. They didn’t know that she was the artist, that she had bared her soul with this, her first real exhibit. If they knew they would be more careful with their words.
But how could she expect them to understand her work when her own father considered her work “silly games that distract you from real goals?” How could she make him see how important her art was to her? Maybe if she sold a few paintings he would see that art could be a marketable skill.
5. Olivia couldn’t help loving Ralph. He loved and accepted her the way she was.
Here’s another one from Abigail Prigge:
Olivia peered at the picture of her friend Ralph taped to the mirror. A smile touched her lips. She seized her brush and whisked it through her hair. Would a french twist set her new dress off? Olivia held her hair in place. She winced. Nothing would frame her face, rounder than a grapefruit. And her hair was thin and grey-brown. The phone rang. Her speedy heartbeat assured herself that Ralph had kept his promise, and called! He says that I’m a Christian — kind and sweet, and that’s what is really important to him. Olivia eyes starred. She had no choice but adore him. She grabbed the phone.
Here’s my example:
Olivia stood in the doorway and studied her home. Dirty dishes spilled from the sink. Books and papers covered the kitchen table. Piles of laundry reclined in the recliner and sat in the chairs. Empty candy wrappers littered the carpet. How did it get like this?
When Olivia started writing, she entered her private world of fiction where she controlled life. Her heroines might be troubled, but they were always beautiful. Life might be challenging, but never boring. Even her villians were witty. Chapters later she emerged from her fiction to find a real life with a house that got dirtier by itself, never cleaner.
She straightened the family picture on the wall. She had to smile at her husband’s balding head and bulging middle. The picture didn’t match the virile heroes of her fiction world, but he was her dream mate–mainly because he didn’t complain when he had to wear the same socks two days in a row.