Writing Exercises from Author Deborah Davis - Professional Speaking Engagements
WRITING EXERCISES

Please Select One

Workshop 1 - Show, Don’t Tell: Okay, But How Do You Do It?
Workshop 2 - Shopping List Poems
Workshop 3 - It’s Not Real If You Can’t Smell It: Tips on Sensory Writing
Workshop 4 - A Dozen Ways to Freewrite
Workshop 5 - Who Are These Characters in My Manuscript and Why Are They Doing Such Strange Things?
Workshop 6 - Skeletons in the Closet, Mold in the Fridge
Workshop 7 - Mom, Dad, I've Got Something to Tell You...


Workshop 1
Show, Don’t Tell: Okay, But How Do You Do It?
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If you’ve been writing fiction for a while, you’ve undoubtedly heard it before: show, don’t tell. Maybe you’re confused about the difference between showing and telling. Or maybe you recognize the difference, but you’re having trouble showing in your own writing. Or you understand the difference just fine, thank you, and you argue that thousands of fiction writers tell instead of show, and they get published, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that telling—explaining and describing a character’s traits tends to be, well, boring. Moreover, it’s not nearly as believable as showing, or revealing, who your character is through his or her actions, gestures, and dialogue.

Let’s do a writing exercise that can help you improve your ability to reveal character without telling, explaining, or otherwise hitting your readers over the head with obviousness. First, though, let’s look at one scene written in two ways. The first, with a lot of telling, is adapted from my novel, NOT LIKE YOU. In this scene, fifteen-year-old Kayla and her mother Marilyn are driving from Dallas to a new home in New Mexico. Marilyn has just informed Kayla that they’re going to meet Kayla’s grandmother, a woman Kayla has believed to be dead.

..........I was surprised—nearly shocked—but I tried to stay calm. “Does she know we’re coming?” I asked evenly, trying to sound like it was no big deal.
..........I think Mom was concerned about my reaction, because her face was kind of tight. “She doesn’t know we’re coming. We’re going to surprise her.” Her voice sounded tense.
..........Now I was worried that this old, sick woman would die of shock when she saw us. But I didn’t want Mom to know how worried I was. She hated it when I worried. “Why haven’t we seen her all these years?” I asked. I pretended to be interested in the window crank so I wouldn’t look too anxious or too curious. Mom shuts down when I do that.
..........“It’s a long, complicated story,” she said nervously.
..........Uh-oh. She really didn’t want to talk about it. “Maybe it would help us pass the time,” I said sarcastically.
She changed the subject, clearly wanting to avoid this conversation. “You want to take a break and check if there’s a busted fuse or something in that radio?”
..........Now I was feeling kind of irritated. “Just tell me about her, okay?”

Now compare that scene with this one, which—you guessed it—shows, instead of tells, exactly as it appears in
NOT LIKE YOU:

....“Is she glad we’re coming?” I asked.
..........Mom looked at me sideways and readjusted her grip on the wheel. “She doesn’t know. We’re going to surprise her.”
..........Terrific, I thought. We’re going to burst in on a frail old woman in a nursing home. I hoped the shock of seeing us wouldn’t kill her. “Why haven’t we seen her all these years?” I asked, flicking the loose knob on the end of the window crank.
..........Her fingers wiggled against the wheel. “It’s a long, complicated story,” she said.
..........I swallowed. “Well, we only have about ten more hours of driving.”
..........She pressed her back against the seat. “You want to take a break and check if there’s a busted fuse or something in that radio?”
..........“Did that already. It’s not busted. Like I already told you.”

Notice how the second one creates and holds more tension? How we can use our own intelligence to interpret Kayla’s and Marilyn’s emotions ourselves, without being told? See how much more I accomplished in the second version with a lot fewer words?

Here are some tips for revealing character by showing:

If you’ve used an adverb, take it out and replace it with a gesture or action that indicates the same thing. For example, instead of telling you,

“It’s a long, complicated story,” she said nervously.

I showed you Marilyn’s nervousness:

Her fingers wiggled against the wheel. “It’s a long, complicated story,” she said.

Marilyn’s other actions also reveal character:  she looks at her daughter sideways, presses her back against the seat, and changes the subject. From these actions we can guess that she’s feeling anxious and perhaps also guilty or ashamed.

Look also at how Kayla starts the scene by hiding her surprise and worry behind a forced calm, then expresses some of her growing irritation with a sarcastic remark (“Well, we only have about ten more hours of driving.”), and by the end of this short scene, she’s quietly but angrily standing up to her mother, practically forcing her to tell her the truth about this grandmother she has apparently lied about for years.

Nowhere in the second example do I use the words “anxious,” “worried,” or “angry.” There are no adverbs describing the two characters’ actions. The simple, emotion-packed actions, dialogue, and gestures speak for themselves, revealing Kayla to be a cautious, smart girl who’s tired of her mother’s dishonesty and lack of communication—at the same time as she fears trying to communicate with her—and Marilyn to be a wily, self-centered, and probably fearful woman who may or may not be attempting to make some positive changes in their lives.

Now let’s do the writing exercise. Pick one of the following scenarios (or make up your own) and write it first with a lot of telling and then a second time with only showing. Before you begin, make a list of your characters’ feelings, and make sure to include those particular words in the first scene you write. (Feel free to switch the gender of any of these characters).

  1. A girl arrives at a restaurant to break up with her boyfriend of one year, who has also been her best friend for 10 years. She doesn’t want her soon-to-be-ex to know there’s someone else she’s interested in, but the boy she plans to start dating next is at a table across the room.

  2. A boy has promised his feminist girlfriend, who thinks he’s incompetent in the kitchen, to make her a birthday cake. His cake is a disaster, and just as he’s leaving the house to buy her one and try to make it look as though he made it, his girlfriend shows up at his house.

  3. A boy must get at least a C in English for his parents to allow him to continue playing on the sports team he loves. He gets a C minus, and now he has to tell his parents, who have asked to see his report card.

  4. A girl has been looking forward to meeting her dad’s new girlfriend, whom she has heard much about. Her own mother died so long ago that she’s ready to accept a new mom in her life. But when her dad takes her to a fancy restaurant and she meets the new girlfriend, she is horrified to learn that the woman is only 23 years old, a fact her father neglected to tell her.

Remember, in your first scene write exactly how the characters are feeling, using phrases like, “she felt…” or “I felt…” Use adverbs to describe verbs—“I asked curiously” or “He spoke angrily.” Explain and over-explain. Pretend that your readers won’t understand anything unless you spell it out for them.

In your second scene, take out the feeling words, the “I felt” and “She felt” phrases, and all the adverbs. Use actions, gestures, and dialogue to show us who your characters are instead. For example, replace “I felt so angry!” with “I slammed my hand on the table.” “I thought that was very funny” becomes “I laughed so hard the milk went up my nose.” 

When you’ve written both scenes, read them aloud—to yourself if you are working alone, to another person if possible. Get feedback. Have you revealed your characters through action, not description? Are their feelings apparent through gestures or the tone of their dialogue? Have you written one scene that is too wordy, too obvious, too…boring? And another that shows character and creates tension in subtle, intriguing ways?

Showing who your characters are, revealing them through carefully drawn scenes, is not easy! You may have to rewrite your showing scene a number of times to learn how to show, not tell.

Is telling ever appropriate? Yes, it is—but it’s hard to do it in a way that’s engaging for the reader. That’s a subject for a whole different writing workshop! In the meantime, keep working on how to show, not tell. I promise you it will make your stories more engaging, more believable, and more exciting for your readers to read.

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Workshop 2
Shopping List Poems

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I love this exercise. I use it with people who say they hate to write or are scared to write or can't think of what to write about. I also use it just for fun, with writers of all ages and types. It's a great warm-up exercise for anyone.

  1. Make a list of seven items: a shopping list, or a list of what you ate for breakfast, or a list of things you love, or a list of what you wish you could forget.

  2. Make a list of seven adjectives.

  3. And make a list of seven verbs.

  4. Now, put them together to make a poem. You don't have to use every word on each list, and you can add new words that aren't on any list. The main thing is not to think too hard. Let yourself throw together combinations of words. Be impulsive.

Here's an example:

A. Seven items:

Bell peppers
Salt
Chicken breasts
Toilet paper
Sliced ham
Mayonnaise
Chocolate chips

B. Seven adjectives:

Ornery simple
Red
Silly
Daunting
Spicy
Protective

C. Seven verbs:

Run
Give up
Smell
Embrace
Laugh
Cry
Bounce

Now I'll pick from my lists, trying to match some of the nouns and verbs with each of the seven items. I come up with this:

I want to run with the red bell peppers,
Throw salt over my shoulder,
And wish for something simple
Like a ham sandwich with mayo
Or chocolate chips.
Instead, I am waiting in a long check-out line
With only chicken breasts in my basket,
Not wanting to give up my place
To get the toilet paper
I forgot.

  1. Look at what you've written. Read it aloud--to yourself if you're alone, to others if you're in a group. Tell each other (or yourself) what you like about this poem.

  2. Look over your poem and your lists. Do you want to change anything? Add words you left out? Cut words or phrases?

I look my example over, and change it to this:

Standing at the cash register

I want to juggle red bell peppers,
Throw salt over my shoulder,
Bounce lemons off the walls,
And wish for something simple:
You, making a ham sandwich with mayo,
surprising me with the smell of fresh-baked cookies.
Instead, I am waiting in a long check-out line
With only chicken breasts in my basket
Not wanting to give up my place
To get the toilet paper
I forgot.

Ta da! A poem is born.

Some of these poems will come out silly. Some will be serious. Some will have stories, and some won't. Play with them. Experiment with combining words.

Enjoy!

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Workshop 3 - It’s Not Real If You Can’t Smell It: Tips on Sensory Writing Download pdf | Return to top of page

What often brings a story to life are the details, but it's the sensory details in particular--the smells, tastes, textures, and sounds, as well as the sights--that can make a story seem not just believable but real. For example, if you write about a girl from Barrow, Alaska walking through Times Square in New York City late one night in July, 2007, and you show her feeling awed by all the noise and bright lights, I'll think that maybe you've been there once, a long time ago, or maybe you've seen photos of Times Square. But if you write also about the delicious smell of hot pretzels sold by a street vendor, the noxious fumes of the traffic, and the random, rank whiffs of urine, I will stop wondering if you know what you're writing about; I will feel as though I'm walking those noisy, over-lit, odor-rich streets with that overwhelmed girl.

I recently read a novel I liked that included scenes in a dairy barn, but I wondered if the author had actually spent much time in such a barn. Many years ago, shortly after college, I exchanged work for room and board at a 60-cow dairy farm near Bennington, Vermont. While the author did include barn smells in her narrative, she omitted some of the other sensory details that linger in my memory: the syncopated shish-shish of the milking machines, the pungent, steamy smell of the warm disinfectant we used to wash the cows' udders, the firm, swollen feel of a full udder, and the saggy, loose jiggle of a bag that's just been emptied of three gallons of milk. The author didn't mention how the hair of a cow feels smooth if you stroke it one way, bristly the other, how the black-and-white Holsteins stand firmly when you lean against their warm, solid hulks, or how a lovely brown Jersey, despite her huge, liquid brown eyes and long, dark eyelashes, will kick you hard if you startle her.

Here are some tips and writing exercises to help you learn how to incorporate sensory details in your stories. Go through these in order, or pick the ones that interest you. You’ll get more out of the writing exercises if you read aloud to one or more people after you write. You can support each other’s writing by commenting on where it seems most real or alive, or where you wanted to know more. Be encouraging of each other!

(Note: For any of the writing exercises, you can write about yourself or another real person, or you can use a fictional character. Use all the senses in each exercise. Also, you can write for any length of time. I recommend 5 to 30 minutes, depending on how confident you feel. Start with shorter times if you are not so confident.)

  1. If you’re currently working on a story, make sure that each scene in your story includes at least two or three different sensory details. The senses of sight and hearing are the most used in most stories, so focus on including the lesser-used ones—taste, smell, and touch.

  2. Choose a favorite book and notice where the author includes sensory details. Do they make the story seem more realistic? If so, why do you think they do? Does the author use all five senses in his/her story? If not, do you think he/she should have?

  3. Write for five minutes using all of your senses to describe where you are right now. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch?

  4. Do the same exercise, but first walk quietly around the room or outside, noticing what you sense. Then sit down and write for five minutes, using all your senses.

  5. Do the same exercise, but first put on a blindfold and let another person lead you carefully around the room. Switch roles, and then sit and write for five or ten minutes, using all your senses and your memory of what you sensed while blindfolded.

  6. Describe something you did, including sensory details. It can be quite ordinary, such as eating breakfast that morning, playing soccer, shopping for food or clothes, or dancing at a party.

  7. Write for 5-20 minutes about a character, describing what he or she does, using sensory details. Again, it can be something ordinary.

  8. Write about an insect or animal creeping, walking, or slithering up your arm.

  9. Write a scene in which your character is either blind or deaf and in a place he/she has never been in before.

  10. Write about being on another planet. What are the smells, textures, sights, sounds, and tastes in this strange, new place?

  11. Write a scene in which you or your character experience every sense in a new way: for example, describe being in your bedroom when nothing you smell, taste, touch, see, or hear is familiar. If you can, include why everything is different: are you returning to your bedroom after years of living elsewhere? Are you blind now, after being able to see for years? Do you have new powers after living with aliens for a month?

  12. Write a scene in which you or your character has lost your sense of smell or taste or touch.

  13. Write about something you or your character loves, using all the senses.

  14. Write a scene in which you or your character is sad or happy or scared or angry, using all the senses.

Have fun with this. Read your scenes aloud and get feedback. Encourage others. You may find that new story ideas or characters come out of doing these exercises. Circle those or put them in an “Ideas” folder, so you won’t forget to write more about them another time.

Enjoy!

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Workshop 4
A Dozen Ways to Freewrite
(Or How to Trick Your Brain Into Writing New Stuff) Download pdf | Return to top of page

You may already know the guidelines for free writing: write continuously, don't think, don't stop or cross out or erase. Write whatever comes into your mind.

If your mind is like a building with many corridors and rooms, each filled with different perspectives, voices, settings, ideas, beliefs, and so on, free writing is what helps you gain access to those varied spaces and all that they contain.

In the spirit of starting the year anew, try some of the following to expand, strengthen, and enrich your writing. Whichever exercise you choose, decide ahead of time how long you will write--5 or 10 or 20 or 60 minutes.

  1. Put on an outfit that is completely uncharacteristic for you. It could be a costume, clothes belonging to the opposite gender, a ton of make-up. If you tend to dress casually, try dressing formally or in a fancy manner. Put on a strange or silly hat. Once you are dressed or made up, sit and free write.

  2. Before you sit down to free write, take a silent walk indoors or outdoors, using all your senses. Notice sounds, smells, textures, tastes, sights.

  3. Free write with your left hand.

  4. Write to music. Put on a CD or tape and write for a certain number of songs or for the entire album. I prefer instrumental music for this, but try both and see how your writing differs with each.

  5. Light a candle and set it in front of you while you write.

  6. Combine #4 and #5.

  7. Start with one word or question that interests you or that has been appearing frequently in your writing, and free write from there. For instance, maybe the word 'mother' or 'scared' or 'unbelievable' pops up in your writing a lot. Start with that word, or with the question, what do I mean by 'mother'?

  8. Start with this phrase: I felt lost when... Free write from there.

  9. Start with this phrase: I want to know...

  10. Pick an animal. Free write as if you are that animal. Write from the animal's point of view.

  11. Free write as if you are an old person at the end of your life, looking back.

  12. Free write as if you are leaving your home and taking a journey you've never dared to take before.

Remember: don't think, don't stop, don't erase or cross out. Just. Write.

Enjoy!

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Workshop 5
Who Are These Characters in My Manuscript and Why Are They Doing Such Strange Things?
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Suppose you are working on a novel or short story. You have your characters’ names and ages, a setting, and a plot. You think you know what the theme or themes are. Maybe you’re working on your first draft, or maybe it’s your sixth. Your critique group, however, whoever they are—friends, parents, classmates, mentors (sorry, your dog doesn’t count, even if you read the entire manuscript aloud to him)—like your story, but they say it’s a little unfocused, as are your characters. They’re…uneven. Some of their actions seem to come out of the blue and no one, including you, is sure why they’re doing what they do. Those scenes are dramatic, though, or funny, or just intriguing, and you’d like to hang onto them. You think they’re important to the story, even if you aren’t sure yet why.

How do you fix this sort of mess? Who are your characters, on a deep level, and why are they behaving in these extreme or uncharacteristic ways?

A talk with your therapist, critique group, best friend, or even that dog might lead you to new insights about your character. Yet how do you then translate your insights into scenes or dialog or narratives so that the disjointed segments become integral parts of the story?

Here is one way to get there: Step inside the head of each of your troublesome characters. Even if you are writing from only one person’s point of view, take time to let each character speak.

For instance, while writing NOT LIKE YOU, a phone scene between Kayla and her mother Marilyn wasn’t working. Kayla had run away to Denver, and her mom didn’t seem to be overly concerned. To some degree, that made sense: Marilyn was a self-absorbed alcoholic. But she was trying to make improvements in her life, and I wanted to show that Kayla’s brash act had shaken Marilyn to her core. Honestly, though, I wasn’t sure exactly how Marilyn was feeling. I couldn’t just make her say, “Kayla, you’ve shaken me to my core.” Marilyn is a prideful person, and she’d had a hard time showing affection to her daughter. She’s terrified of intimacy, in other words. Plus, people usually don't say things like that. Yet, I knew she recognized in her daughter some of who she herself had been as an angry, runaway teen.

Setting my manuscript aside, I wrote something like this, from Marilyn’s point of view: (I can’t find the actual draft, but this should be close.)

Jeez, I’m scared. I don’t know what to tell her. Do I sneak up there and grab her? But I don’t know where the hell she is. Damn it. I gotta stay cool. She’ll freak if I start yelling. Even though I want to. Just come home, baby. Why don’t you just come home? I’ll do anything. Just ask me. Tell me. Anything, babe. Jeez. My heart’s pounding like it’s gonna leap out of my chest. I could call the cops. Yeah. That would be the responsible thing, righ? Wield a little muscle here. What am I afraid of? Call the damn cops already. Anything could happen to her up there. You’ll never SEE her again. Call. Now! Whoa. Get a grip. I can’t call the cops. What am I going to tell them? There must be a million runaways in Denver, brown-haired girls like Kayla. A million, at least, and I don’t know where she is. And she’ll kill me. She’ll never forgive me. What do I do? What do I tell her? How do I get her to come home? What if I never see her again?

Writing this passage gave me a better sense of both Marilyn’s feelings and her dilemma: how could she assert her authority and caring as a mother but not scare her already resentful daughter away? How could she show some trust in Kayla while also taking care of her own very real fear that she might not ever see her daughter again? I wound up using several elements from that inner monologue to craft Marilyn’s part of the conversation in a way that showed her caring and respect for Kayla while staying true to her own character.

Here are several ways to explore alien story elements—those out-of-the-blue behaviors your characters exhibit—that you think have should remain in the manuscript.

  1. Write from the point of view of your secondary characters. Let them tell you how they see the situation. Let them look at it from all different angles and emotions. Let them give their first impressions, their worst fears, their blind hopes.
  2. Write about your characters’ history, even if those events occurred before your story takes place. You might discover an earlier trauma or formative experience that helps to explain a character’s seemingly irrational behavior. (Then, of course, you have to figure out how to weave that earlier experience into your story without adding 300 pages to your manuscript.) Was there a death, an illness, an accident? Did this character once fall in love in Argentina and have her heart broken? Did she grow up wandering in the woods for hours with a favorite dog, loving her solitude and nature? Was your character raised by a Holocaust survivor? By a world-famous French pastry chef? By a pod of whales?
  3. Have your characters write letters to each other that they would never send.
  4. Write from your characters’ perspectives as if they are 70 years old and looking back on the story.

I have used these kinds of techniques for every novel I’ve had published. I’ve written pages and pages from various characters’ points of view and time frames. Sometimes I resist: Why do all this writing if it won’t go into the book?

I’ve never regretted it. I always get at least one gem from the exercise, something that makes a scene work, or reveals a vital aspect of a character’s history or personality that I previously hadn’t understood.

Not convinced you need to do this? Here’s a simple analogy: Suppose you’re trying to see a photo on the wall, but the refrigerator blocks your way. You can sit there and say, “Well, I just can’t see it. I’m trying my hardest, but I just can’t see it.” Or you can stand up, walk around the fridge to a new position, and look at the photo from there.

I know that seems like a blazingly simplistic, kind of stupid analogy. But it fits. It’s all about shifting your perspective. You can’t see all the complicated angles that enrich a story unless you’re willing to take the time to consider it from many points of view.

I’m so glad I wrote this. I’ve finished a 360-page first draft, and my characters are barely on the page. Time to practice—again—what I preach.

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Workshop 6
Skeletons in the Closet, Mold in the Fridge
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I love visiting new friends’ homes for the first time and seeing what kinds of furniture, art, knickknacks, and other stuff they surround themselves with. Unlike most people, however, I don’t like to stop with the easily visible items. As a writer, I want to know how—or if—they organize their kitchen and bathroom cabinets, what condition are the bedroom closets in, and what’s in all those boxes in the basement and garage? If the person I’m visiting lives in a tiny apartment, where only the most critical belongings can fit, what has he or she chosen to keep? What might they have had to get rid of? And what do all these things—the Jimi Hendrix photo ripped out of a 1969 Rolling Stone Magazine taped onto the wall by the toilet, the container of green moldy goo in the back of the refrigerator, the half-full wine glass with lipstick marks on the balcony floor—what do they mean? What do they say about the person living in that place?

Writing exercise: Pretend that you or a character (Character #1) you create are looking into another character’s (Character #2) refrigerator or closet or cabinet. What do you see? What do the contents say to you about Character #1? What feelings, thoughts, or memories about Character #2 do those things evoke in you or in Character #1?

Variations:

—Instead of using a refrigerator, closet, or cabinet, you can use Character #2’s car, bedroom, kitchen, desk, or school locker—any one frequently used space where he/she keeps personal belongings.

—Once you’ve chosen the place and the character, let yourself free write with this exercise. See what wacky items turn up in that closet or car, and then imagine what Character #2 might be doing with them.

—Let Character #2 visit your closet, cabinet, fridge, or car—that one cluttered and murky space you never wanted him/her to see. And then you arrive just as he/she finds the one thing you desperately didn’t want him/her to find.

—Pretend Character #2 is your parent (if you are a teen) or your child (if you are an adult).

Have fun!

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Workshop 7
Mom, Dad, I've Got Something to Tell You...
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For this months' writing exercise, let's dream up some really awkward and tension-filled situations. You will depict three or more characters coping with something unexpected that makes one, two, or all three of them squirm.These scenes can be sad or tragic, or they can be humorous, or even both. Regardless of the tone you choose, this kind of scene is always intriguing.

If you're teaching this exercise, it can be tailored to any age level. For young kids, you can suggest, for example, that they write about a child bringing home a found animal.

--What is unique about this animal? Does it talk? Is it filthy? Does it play chess, or like to cook?

--Have the parents react differently to the news. (It doesn't have to be two parents: the child might live with one parent and a sibling, or two grandparents, or one grandparent and one parent, and so on.) Both people can react negatively, but one should have a stronger reaction than the other.

--How might this surprise turn from being bad news into being something good?

For older writers, the surprise might be a pregnancy (I know, it's not original, but it's in the ether these days), or a decision to drop out of school, or the revelation that the teenage child has destroyed something the parents value (the family car, a treasured piece of jewelry or artwork, something with sentimental value.)

--You can have one of the adults, not the child, present the surprising news.

--The news should directly contradict some previously stated rule or value or instructions. In other words, the person with the news has done something he/she was expressly or implicitly asked or told not to do, something that will have a negative consequence for the other two people.

Other suggestions:

To simplify this exercise, write it with only two people. Later try the same situation with three.

After writing your scene, see how you can deepen and complicate it. For example, if you write about a pregnant teen telling her parents she's pregnant, add that her mother is the high school health educator. Or maybe the teen who reveals that he wrecked his mom's car learns that she had agreed to sell it that day to pay for his little brother's much-needed eye operation. Or the giant raccoon that Jimmy brought home is a way better cook than either of Jimmy's parents and gets Jimmy and all his friends to eat all vegetables, even brussel sprouts, but soon he is incorporating all the vegetation in Jimmy's town into the family's meals, and kids are filling the house at every meal, and so on...

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