Writing Exercise – “The Dress-Up Dress Down”

Or should that be “smackdown”? Read on and see 🙂

My writing group does short exercises to share each time we meet, and I’ve decided it might be fun to start sharing them here on my blog.

For this week, we read Chapter 4, “Conflict and How to Build It,” in Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain. This book was long out of print, but I remembered a writer I admired mentioning once how greatly it had influenced her, so when I saw it on Amazon, I recommended it to the group. So far it has not disappointed, despite the somewhat cheesy title.

One person in our writing group takes responsibility to write up an exercise before each meeting that somehow complements what we’ve been reading. For this week, Karen came up with this exercise:

Write a short scene where someone has something that someone else wants.

Chapter 4 talks about these parts of a scene:

I’m sure anything we do will be fun to explore and share.

So here is what I came up with. First, of course, the usual disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

And now, my exercise.

The sunny, late July afternoon found all the neighborhood kids in the Thompson garage digging through boxes of dress-ups. Lori Ann’s dad had taken us to see The Gnome-mobile over the weekend, and our newest game was replaying that movie, especially the big chase where all the lady gnomes chased the man gnome to catch him for a husband. All the girls wanted to be Violet, the one who won the boy gnome’s heart.

Just to stake her claim clearly, Janet Thompson announced, “I call Violet.”

“You were Violet yesterday,” said Brenda. Not that she was jealous. Brenda was playing Jasper, the boy gnome, again. But she had a sense of fairness, and Janet had been getting her own way a lot lately. “I think Mary should be Violet today.”

“It’s my house,” countered Janet. She was bossy and spoiled, but her dress-ups were way nicer than the cast-off grandma clothes the rest of us had in our basements, so here we were again.

“I’d like to be Violet today,” I said, following up on Brenda’s suggestion. It would be fun to win the race and catch the boy gnome for my husband. Well, Brenda. But in the game, she was the boy gnome.

Janet sulked at that. Everyone exchanged glances. I finally sighed and said, “All right, I’ll be Rose.”

Janet smiled her victory and commenced to pulling out purple and lavender items from the boxes to make her Violet costume. For a few minutes we all busied ourselves with putting together our outfits. As Rose, I needed pink. I selected a pale yellow gown, then found a long length of deep pink fabric. Magenta. I knew that from my 64-color box of crayons. Wrapping the fabric around my waist and draping the two ends in loops across my hips, I somewhat recreated the parted skirt that Cinderella wore.

I stepped in front of the mirror to admire the look. Yes, I could be Rose.

Then I noticed something else in the mirror: Janet staring at me from across the floor. “I want to be Rose,” she said.

“It’s too late.”

“No, it’s not. You be Violet.”

You be Violet.” I looked back at the pretty outfit I’d created. “I’m Rose now.”

Janet’s eyes widened. “I’m telling!” she exploded.

I ignored her exit from the garage, digging though the box to pull out a large pink chiffon scarf. Wrapped around my neck, it was too stylish for a fairy creature. But tucked loosely about my arms like a shawl, the filmy material became a gossamer cloak.

“What’s going on out here?” Janet’s mom, with her dark eyeliner and sleek black pantsuit and upswept black hair, filled the garage with irritated authority. “You know I don’t like fighting.”

We all stopped what we were doing to gape at her. Janet peered out from behind her mother, triumphant. She was as pale and blonde as her mother was dark, I noted. Like a wicked stepsister and an evil stepmother.

“Well?” said Janet’s mom.

“I want to be Rose,” Janet complained. “I was going to let Mary play Violet. She wanted to be Violet until she found a better costume for Rose. Now she won’t let me.”

Janet’s mother turned to me, her voice rising so that everyone would hear. “I expect you to get along with each other, Mary. Find a way to solve this problem, or you are done playing today.” With a final glare all around, she returned to the house.

Stunned silence. Shocked and embarrassed, I began to undress, dismantling the costume that had elicited such envy.

“Here,” said Janet, gracious now. She was handing me her lavender dress.

“I’m not playing anymore.” I felt like crying, but I was angry, not sad. She’d taken Violet from me then changed her mind after I turned Rose into a desirable character. That was the unforgivable part. She got what she wanted, but once I’d made lemonade from my lemons, she wanted that, too. Seething at the injustice, I thrust the pink sash and yellow dress into the box. “I’m leaving.”

And then the most astonishing thing happened.

As I walked out of the garage, I heard Brenda say, “I’m leaving, too.” Then Lori Ann put her costume back into the box, as did the other girls.

I’d never felt powerful before.

I didn’t know why the other girls had followed me out, but as I walked down the alley with them, leaving Janet alone in the garage with no one to admire her as Rose, I understood power for the first time.

And it felt good.

Better than catching the boy gnome.

Better than pretty clothes.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Life, Uncategorized, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer), Writing, blogging and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Writing Exercise – “The Dress-Up Dress Down”

  1. Such a great story!! These exercises are fun and interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sally Cissna says:

    I can just picture this victory! So relatable…we’ve all been there with a bully like Janet. I wonder what she told her mother.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice piece. The evil mother is not quite believable…I don’t think a real mum would intervene quite so strictly… but I like the ending. Take that, Janet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! And thank you. I appreciate your feedback and will think further about Janet’s mother’s presence. I tried to make Janet’s complaint sound ever so slightly legitimate and the mom’s irritation sound ever so slightly like she’d read too many articles on child psychology or something. Like not “stop bothering me” but more like she was helping them learn how to manage conflict and resolve disagreements. But really she means STOP BOTHERING ME!!!😂


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