Writing Group Exercise: Show, Don’t Tell

In our local writers’ group Mimi and I have been experimenting with different approaches . So far, we have assigned free-writing exercises and discussed writing technique. Lately we have added critique. But we decided that looking at examples of good writing would be more useful than just talking. So for yesterday’s meeting, I pulled out the best-written book from last month’s book club meeting to see what we could find.

We picked the first paragraph in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, a novel about a small town in England during the Bubonic Plague.

Writers are often advised to show, not tell, but learning how can be a challenge. We asked the students to examine the passage and identify techniques used to make the scene interesting and realistic. Some students criticized parts of it. And no writing style will please everyone.

In our evaluation form, the participants mentioned how much they enjoyed the exercise, so I am sharing it with you.

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’s food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me. Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders.

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Brooks is married to the hilarious Tony Horwitz, author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. She recently published People of the Book: A Novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah.


  1. MiI, I enjoyed People of the Book but haven’t read this one.
    I’ll comment on the paragraph when others have done so (or later if nobody does).
    It could be a good exercise for one of my classes.

  2. I had a problem with “the rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins” because no farmer in his right mind would risk bruising his crop that way. It’s clearly an attempt to describe something of the sense of hearing, and not a bad one if you don’t think about those bruised apples going rotten.

  3. mother in israel says

    Mimi–hey, no fair giving away the answers.

  4. Owch, sorry, honey! But there’s plenty more for readers to critique…

  5. mother in israel says

    Thanks, I-D. Me too.

  6. Belated answer:
    – First there is the ‘I’. We have no idea who this narrator is. So we’ll probably read more to find out.
    – Then there is the creation of an atmosphere with this ‘late summer’ feeling and smell of apples most (Western) readers would recognize.
    – The use of ‘used to’ also suggests a change this year; something whic h is suggested a bit further. Therefore we’ll want to know why this year is different.
    Now I’d like to know what other people have to say about this.

  7. OK, I’ll make a little attempt. Let me start by saying I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but I love reading history books. I’m not convinced that life was so easy for people even before the Bubonic Plague showed up, and the language here sounds too romanticized (“there?s food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came”, for example).
    I think I read somewhere that people died from the Bubonic Plague because they had poor immune systems, and those that survived had stronger immune systems.
    On the other hand, this line: “The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.” reminds me of a Monet painting of haystacks, so that does make me smile.
    Is that the sort of comment you want, Mother in Israel? I’m not really sure what the exercise is.

  8. I also wasn’t sure what you wanted, but when I saw ID’s comment, I had a better picture. This opening paragraph sets the tone for the entire book (I would imagine; I haven’t read the book, but it’s now on my list). I could “feel” what she was describing. I think it would be harder for an Israeli (or Mid-Easter) to feel this, as the seasons here change differently. The paragraph reminding me of October in New York, where there is a chill in the air, brilliant colors on the leaves and pumpkins on doorsteps.
    Can a description of something you have never experienced evoke a feeling like that?
    Anyway, I am very interested in this writer’s group. Did you start it? What does it involve? I was interested in joining one in Modiin, but it was more an exercise in self-actualization, write about your spirituality type of thing (and the woman wanted alot of money!) so it wasn’t for me.

  9. mother in israel says

    A writer wants the reader to “see” the scene in his mind’s eye, and to evoke interest in the story. Brooks used several techniques to do this: Ilana-Davita mentioned the smell of the apples, but there are also sounds.
    Using first person is a technique that works here, but might not always.
    The “used to” of the first line that I-D mentioned, also ties into the end, “this year. . .neither matters much to me.” The last sentence connects to the first, and also draws the reader further into the story.

  10. mother in israel says

    Leora–how does the author evoke the picture of Monet? Take a scene by another painter and describe it, trying to imitate Brooks’ style.
    Baila, have you ever enjoyed a book about China or another exotic location? You don’t have to have been somewhere similar to imagine it. But we do bring our own experiences into our reading.
    About our group: Mimi and I started it, and (for now) we only charge a small membership fee per month. You are welcome to try it out with no obligation.
    There are techniques in the passage that haven’t been mentioned yet.

  11. mother in israel says

    To sum up quickly:
    Two other techniques: Action. A still scene needs to have movement. People. A description of inanimate objects needs some acknowledgment of humanity. Brooks mentions the babies, and the feet. If you were describing an office building you might have lights turning off and on, or a mention of the way the elevators are used for traffic.

  12. Dear Ladies, It has been my dream to write for children but as of yet, it remains unfulfilled. I am out of practice and would like to find out more about your group to sharpen my neglected skills. My sixth son is finally in school long enough with his brothers that i can take advantage of the quiet mornings, perhaps with the exercises you present and your knowledgable commentary. Thank you
    In the above paragraph, Geraldine was indeed trying to evoke a sentiment from her imagery, if the description produces a vision of the scenery in your mind, it isn’t necessary to have ever seen such an environment before, it becomes alive in the readers imagination.