Bag of Tricks: an exercise in Show, don’t Tell

Olivia Berrier recently posted about her bag of writing tricks and an exercise she’d pulled out of it on Show, Don’t Tell (Yes, another battle with Show don’t Tell – will it ever end? Frenemy #1 of the writing world, am I right?). I am in love with this idea of having a literal bag of writing tricks, and I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Show don’t Tell so I thought I’d give it a go.

Show exactly how someone feels without saying it
( 10 mins )

I actually “cheat” a lot in my writing with this, because I have a race of characters that can sense emotion like we taste or see or smell or hear, and I’ve been working with them a lot, so I’m gonna step back into someone a little more mundane and see what I can’t come up with.

ETA: Ooook then. Wrote for A LOT longer than 10 mins, and this wasn’t quite what I think the exercise had in mind, but what a scene! Working with Jack and Z is always unpredictable like that.

Jack froze when he hit the kitchen. Z didn’t react at all, but he knew she had registered his presence. But her red-rimmed eyes stayed locked on the middle distance, seeing nothing. The corners of her mouth pulled ever so slightly downward, brows knitted together so subtly than anyone who hadn’t spent a lifetime monitoring Z’s moods would have missed it around the red that mottled her face. The sploches of color on her nose and eyes stood stark against pale skin, face hollow and gaunt behind the curtain of nearly white hair that spilled careless over her shoulders. Z was not the sort to care overly much about her appearance, but she almost never left her hair down. Too messy, too easy to get caught on things. Why she didn’t just cut, he never knew, and he wouldn’t ask. Jack avoided asking Z her reasons for anything, if he could help it.

He stood in the doorway, wondering if he should just back away and leave her to her thoughts. Just because she knew he was there didn’t mean it had really penetrated her awareness. If Z had been crying, who knew who was really looking out from behind those washed out blue eyes?

But then her head snapped up, and the red around her eyes no longer seemed piteous. Her gaze was predatory, it was clear looking into the shining depths of them, past the unshed tears shimmering in the overhead light, that there was no one home to talk to. No human mind to reason with. Z was having one of those moments.

Jack swallowed hard and fought the urge to take a step back. Flinching would only ensure that she would pounce. He stared down those dead eyes, swollen with pain, and stepped into the kitchen proper, never taking his eyes off hers as he sat down at the table across from her. He didn’t speak, knowing this was more like staring down a wild animal than consoling his grieving sister. Whatever memories had been playing behind her eyes when he’d walked in, they’d left nothing of the little girl he grew up with behind. Z was savage, animalistic, alien.

And every ounce of her attention was fixed on him. Jack was very still, settled back in his chair with an easy manner that belied the tension within. Her eyes flicked to his mouth, taking in his thin lips, darted to his hand flat on the table, motionless, then back to his eyes. He never blinked, breath steady and slow, even when she leaned back in her own chair and visibly relaxed. Her eyes stayed locked on his, but the predatory look in them was gone. Now she was just angry, and the red around her eyes suited that mood too.

The tighness in her jaw eased, lips drawing together in a slight purse. Again, her brows came together, eyes narrowed as she considered him. But it was the mouth that gave her away. The lips were the key to understand her. If the eyes were the window to the human soul, the mouth held all the secrets of the fey. With a laugh or a smile, Jack knew instantly if she was amused or hunting, just what violence was coming next and how it would hurt. Barb of tongue or backhand, genuine question or words like daggers, meant only to harm. The twitch of her lips, the corner of her mouth, the hint of tooth when she bit her lip – each little nuance was a signal to Jack clearer than any neon sign.

Now, her mouth was closed, and tight. She was wary of him. She knew he had seen her crying, would recognize the evidence of it, and now she was waiting to see what he would do with the knowledge. When he was younger, he’d make the mistake of asking her if she was ok, and she’d fly at him in a rage so filled with furious that never expected either of them to survive it. Now, he knew better. Now, he would keep his own council, and wait for her to speak her mind.

When he didn’t speak, Z’s gaze slid over his shoulder to the doorway he’d just walked through, then falling to the floor as her attention turned inward again. Her heavy sigh seemed too loud as it broke the silence, and Jack grit his teeth to keep from jumping, trying not to draw attention to himself. He was braced for it when she finally spoke, though soft, the sound still punched through the silence like shattering glass.

“How the fuck did things fall out this way?”

Jack didn’t answer, knowing she wasn’t actually asking him a question. He would watch, and listen, and wait, and see if she would reveal the tumult rolling around in her skull. She drew a breath as if to speak, held it, then released it again with a sigh. She shook her head, one corner of her mouth pulling back in the beginnings of a smirk, but not quite reaching it.

“What golden cock of fortune did he suck to walk outta this life with nothing more than a fucked up eye?

The smirk transformed into a sneer, words bitten off and spat out like a curse. The other half of her face stayed strangely immobile, mouth drawn slightly downward. She looked like a Greek tragedy mask, face split down the middle. Her eyes closed and her expression softened, but there was still a play of emotion in her mouth that Jack couldn’t quite read.

Another heavy breath, like she was pulling a drag from one of her cigs, blowing it out as she let her head fall back. She was quiet long enough that Jack wondered if she would speak again, or if she had gone too deep inside to remember the outside world and the brother watching her with fearful concern.

Her hand twitched, raising up off the table just to fall again in a careless motion. All of Jack’s attention fixed on that hand, waiting to see if she would strike. Instead, she spoke, words halting and whispered and far, far away.

“All of us… all of us fey touched…”

Her head began to rock back and forth, shaking her head with disbelief. Jack watched as the corner of her mouth melted back into the sneer, rage filling her face, pulling the empty half along for the ride as her words filled with contempt.

“and they walk away artists. And we,”

Jack tensed as Z’s hand clenched into a fist, anger spilling from her face to fill her entire form. She shook with the force of it, and Jack shifted his weight forward, ready to spring into action to defend him when she could contain her fury no long and lashed out.

“We get THIS!”

She slammed her fist into the table, motion pulling her head upright, force making the china salt shakers jump and clatter. Her eyes flew open, rage boiling within them, and Jack remained motionless, ready. Her chest heaved with ragged breathing, nails biting into her palm as her fists clenched ever tighter, and Jack simply stared at her, face empty. Her mouth was a hard, grim line, lips thinning and paling to white with the force of her anger-

And then it was gone.

Every ounce of tension drained from Z’s face like a switch had been thrown. Her hand fell limp and lifeless on the table again, eyes sliding out of focus, breath easing from her parted lips. Jack blinked, and waited, but she didn’t stir. He stared at his motionless sister for several long moments, then pushed away from the table and moved to start a pot of coffee. Tripp would be waking soon, and together they could carry Z to bed and leave her to stare at the ceiling all day.


2 thoughts on “Bag of Tricks: an exercise in Show, don’t Tell

    • Thanks! I’m always a little wary of posting anything from Z, cause she’s kind of …well, let’s just say she should come with her own trigger warning. “Gritty” isn’t a strong enough word, I think.

      But Jack does watch her minutiae like a hawk, so I thought he would be a good one to try on for this exercise.

      But I am so worried that one these days Z is going to go too far and I’m not going to catch it and post something that REALLY offends someone. I have all kinds of scenes between the two of them that probably never need to see the light of day. Again, “gritty” isn’t strong enough. “Rapey” is probably a much better word for Z. :/


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