Many times when I’ve sat down to write, I’ve been tempted to tell a plot point instead of show it. It’s so much easier and quicker. Sometimes, a plot point needs to be told so as not to bog down the narrative. This is especially true in mysteries. Often characters are relaying information to each other. It’s perfectly fine to tell it, so I don’t repeat myself.
For example, if Bob has a conversation with Ann and then repeats it to Tom, I don’t to write a detailed conversation between Bob and Tom. I can say, “Bob told Tom what he learned from Ann over lunch.” Or “Bob reported his conversation with Ann, only leaving out the part about her poodle.”
But wanting to tell a plot point instead of show can be a sign of a bigger problem. If your instincts are pulling you that way, here are four ways to troubleshoot your plot points with show don’t tell.
The plot is too complicated.
I started “A Rose from the Ashes” from the point of view of a female character who wants to figure out who is leaving two roses in the fireplace at the abandoned children’s home. This woman drags her nineteen-year-old friend into her amateur sleuthing. At the end of the story, I planned to reveal the teen was behind the roses, then have her explain she was trying to find her father, then have her explain she was also investigating a murderous attack on her mother. It hit me that, while the plot was good, I was presenting it in a needlessly complicated way.
The story belonged to the nineteen-year-old girl. I should let her tell it. Once I changed my main character, the plot complications smoothed out beautifully.
The plot point is unnecessary.
If I can’t think of an interesting way to show a plot point, I’m tempted to tell it. That’s when I should examine it and see if I really need it. Maybe it’s an unnecessary complication. Or I may realize …
The plot point needs a change.
Let’s say my amateur sleuth must find out that Old Man Thompson had an illegitimate child in high school. I was planning to have the gossipy hair stylist tell him. But I can’t get a good handle on the stylist character, so I want to rush through the scene, telling it, instead of showing it.
So I change how my sleuth learns the information. Maybe his grandmother tells him because she graduated with Old Man Thompson. Now that provides my main characters with a personal connection to his investigation.
Or maybe he finds an old diary with the information. Where does he find the diary? Whose diary is it? Those questions and others can inspire me to show and not tell my plot point.
The plot point is unconvincing.
If you’ve watched mystery shows and movies very often, you know what I mean. The detective discovers the true meaning behind a clue and spends minutes convincing a skeptical colleague. I don’t mean the detective is trying to convince his friend that an unlikely suspect did it. What I mean is the screenwriter knows he’s thrown in an outrageous twist and is hoping to get the audience to believe it by having his detective explain the clue to his friend, who is standing in the place of the audience.
Detective: Yes, those mysterious yellow and green feathers were deliberately left at the murder scene to make us suspect that Miss Prim had trained her parrot to drop the tablet of poison into Mayor Abernathy’s tea cup. But in reality, Mrs. Abernathy mixed the poison in the sugar bowl because she knew her husband always ate cereal on Tuesdays and always put sugar on iit.
Skeptical Friend: I find that hard to believe.
Detective: Would you believe Miss Prim really did train her parrot to drop the tablet of poison into Mayor Abernathy’s tea cup?
Skeptical Friend, edging toward door: Not really.
I ran into this problem when I had to create a reason for why Rae’s father hadn’t looked for her when he thought her mother was pregnant with his child. I came up with a long-winded explanation but realized I was trying to convince myself. So I simplified it.
The entire county thought Rae’s mother had died in a fire. For years, her father did, too. When he thought Rae’s mom might have escaped the fire, he figured she had aborted the baby, which she had threatened to do. Simple and convincing. If I couldn’t convince myself of this plot point, I needed either to get rid of it or change it.
How have you used troubleshooting to improve your plots? Or what plot points have you read that you think needed troubleshooting?