Four Ways to Troubleshoot Your Plot Points

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.

For example:

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?

Write This Scene in Show Don’t Tell

Last prompt for the month featuring show don’t tell.

*****

The air burned in my nose as I pumped up the hill. All this exercise would either kill me or make me fit enough to beat the entire cross-country team next fall. But if this was the only way I could see Ava and Lucy during this stupid virus crisis, I’d let the air burn off my nose completely.

“C’mon! Race ya!” My little brother flew by us as we passed the Jenkins’ farm.

Besides the threat of death, Gavin was the other drawback of these rides. But Mom made me bring him.

“I’m glad it stopped raining.” Ava sat up straighter, the breeze that was tossing the leaves of the budding honeysuckle catching her long, red hair.

Lucy bent lower over her bars. “I don’t let a little rain stop me from riding.”

Of course she didn’t. Lucy was in good enough shape to make Olympic athletes throw up their hands and go home to their couches.

I didn’t say that, though. Couldn’t. I was pedaling.

Gavin stopped at the overgrown drive that always had a chain across it, and we pulled up beside him.

“Look.” He pointed at the chain that was wrapped around a tree.

“That chain is always blocking that drive,” said Lucy.

“It’s not now.” Gavin hopped into this seat and took off.

“Gavin! That’s a private drive!” I tried to shout, but it came out as a strained whisper.

He disappeared around the bend.

I looked to Ava and Lucy. “He’s your brother,” Ava said.

“You know, I’d forgotten that.” Blowing out my cheeks, I pushed off and headed down the drive.

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 2

I loved to read first-person stories. That’s why I write stories in first-person. But that leads to the tricky problem of how to describe the main character (MC) in show don’t tell. Here’s one thing not to do:

Don’t Use a Mirror!

A lot of first-time writers make this mistake. I did when I tackled my first novel at eighteen. The technique I used was to have my MC stop by a mirror and remark on his looks.

This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, it’s been done to death. Second, it can feel bolted on to the story, as out of place in the narrative as sideview mirrors on a stroller. Third, it will slow or stall the narrative. For my readers to get a picture of my main character early in the story, I’d have to have her stop by the mirror just when I want them caught up in the action.

So forget the mirror.

Slip in the MC’s Description Naturally

In my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, the first scene is set in an abandoned children’s home, and my MC is alone. But I needed to give some clues to readers about who this person is. So in the second paragraph, I wrote “my long, dark gold braid catching on a loose nail in the sill.” Now readers know they are most likely dealing with a female.

After five hundred words, I switch scenes. My MC is working in a library and chatting with her boss. The first sentence is a line of dialogue “Is this yours, Rae?”. The female spelling of her first name confirms it’s a woman. Then I worked in a reference to her age and deposited a clue to the mystery at the same time.

Speaking to Rae: Barb glanced at [a smart phone]. “You were looking up the Ohio Revised Code?” Her eyebrows lifted above her bright red glasses. “When I was nineteen, the closest I got to reading the law was legal thrillers.”

I had to wait for the next scene to get in a more detailed description of Rae. I would have liked to put it in earlier, but it didn’t seem natural. In the next scene, Rae is chatting with Jason Carlisle, one of the men who might be her father. He is also a member of the library board and reminds Rae that she can bring a date to the staff Christmas party. Rae says she hasn’t been in town long enough to interest any guy. Jason says he’s surprised the guys haven’t found her. This gives Rae a chance to reflect on her looks.

“He was just being nice. At 5’11”, my height works against me when it comes to attracting guys. That and my face. My eyes are okay–dark chocolate brown with a slight tilt–but my face is too bony, all cheekbones and chin.

Now I’ve given readers enough information to imagine Rae.

How to Show Don’t Tell Ages of Characters

This is another tricky problem. Since my story is concerned with a nineteen-year-old looking for her father, I felt it was important to mention ages of people who might be her relatives. It helped readers see the characters and established relationships between characters. Here are two ways I showed and didn’t tell characters’ ages.

Slip it into dialogue

I used dialogue to reveal Rae’s age. In another scene, Rae is eating lunch with the sheriff, who is another candidate to be her father, and his family. His age comes out in a conversation with his mother. Discussing the time twenty years before when Rae’s mother was pregnant with her and disappeared from the county, the sheriff’s mother says to her son:

“At the time, all you thought about was going to college to play football. And everything else a senior has to deal with.”

Slip it into MC’s thoughts

When I introduced the characters of Jason Carlisle, I had Rae think:

“My gaze traveled up to the black sweater with a subtle swirling pattern and the million-watt smile of Jason Carlisle. That smile made him look a lot younger than thirty-seven.

But sometimes, you have to tell

If the age was important, and I couldn’t think of a better way to let readers know, I flat-out stated it. I dropped in the age and moved on.

“His six-year-old son was nowhere to be seen …”

“Mrs. M. swatted at the first-grader …”

These observations are still in the mind of my MC, so it might qualify as shown, but these aren’t as well-woven into the story as my other examples.

Okay, your turn. How do you show readers what your main character looks like? What’s a great example of how to describe characters in show don’t tell?

Write This Scene in Show Don’t Tell

A photo prompt for the speculative fiction writers out there. How would you write this scene in show don’t tell?

Here’s mine.

*****

I slipped my hand into Jakon’s as we strolled along the highest catwalk in the city park.

“It’s beautiful.” I sqeezed his hand.

A big grin lit up his long face. “I knew you’d like it here.”

This close to the dome, we could see the sun sending its beams through the clouds. The devastated land was too far below us to see clearly. The perfectly controlled air temperature blew gently over us, stirring Jakon’s wavy red hair.

“We’ll have to get back soon.” I sighed.

A loud hum made me look up. My jaw swung loose.

Sailing against the clouds was some kind of vehicle. I’d seen pictures like it in history posts.

Jakon gawked. “Nothing can live outside the dome.”

“Maybe it’s a government or military vehicle.”

“But everybody travels underground to visit the other domes.”

The flying vehicle turned, heading straight for us.

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 1

One of my favorite novels is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. And one of the reasons I like it so well is that the main character Ponyboy describes his older brothers and the members of his gang in great detail. In fact, a good chunk of chapter one is devoted to their descriptions. I’ve always liked getting vivid pictures of the characters in the first few pages. It makes the story come alive to me.

But The Outsiders was written over fifty years ago. Today, those kinds of lengthy descriptions would be considered poor writing. I’ve read that one current trend in writing descriptions for characters is to provide only hair color, eye color, or some other distinctive trait and let the reader fill in the details.

Because of this practice, I have a serious problem getting caught up in currently published stories. The characters never seem real to me. I’m rarely given enough details to “see” them. I also think writers aren’t helping readers by scrimping on characters descriptions.

When I wrote my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I was faced with the problem of how to describe characters in “show don’t tell” without slowing down the story. I also had to describe them from the deep point of view of my main character (MC), nineteen-year-old Rae Riley. Those descriptions would not only tell readers how characters looked but something about how my MC saw them.

I hit on a combination of mentioning a few key traits and then a “handle”, a description to sum up that character. As the story progressed, I’d dribble in reminder descriptions to help readers “see” the characters.

Descriptions for major characters

In “A Rose from the Ashes”, Rae is trying to figure out who her father is and if he was the attacker who tried to murder her pregnant mother twenty years before. Her late mother said only three men could be her father. I had to make those three men distinct individuals. Perhaps more than other MC’s, Rae notices the physical traits of the men because she’s looking for connections to her own characteristics.

I introduce one that is a professor this way:

Terence O’Neil was my idea of a professor. Over sixty, balding with a closely cut black and white beard covering cheeks that shook when he talked. He even smoked a pipe.

The “handle” is Terence O’Neil looks likes Rae’s idea of a professor, which invites the reader to think of their idea of a professor. Then I add some specific traits.

Another candidate for Rae’s father is the sheriff, Walter R. Malinowski IV:

He was one of the few people I’d met who made me feel short. Close to six-six, with biceps bulging like pumpkins under a rumpled button-down shirt, he could easily become the next Thor if he grew out his blond crewcut and added a beard.

The “handle” is that he looks like Thor. Blonde crewcut and his height and bulging biceps are the specific traits. Readers are reminded that Rae is tall–maybe inheriting that feature from the sheriff if he’s her father?–and that she likes superhero movies.

The last candidate is Jason Carlisle, a businessman and a member of the wealthiest family in the county.

Besides being fashionable enough for a runway, Jason had dark brown hair, gel sculpting every strand in place, and soft brown eyes that held a warmth I wanted to wrap myself in. If he was a few inches taller and more muscular, he’d make a perfect Superman.

The “handle” is Superman. Specific traits are hair color, eye color, and being fashionable. Rae has brown eyes, so she notices that trait. Her description also shows that she likes the man.

Throughout the story, I dribble in reminders of the characters appearance. When Terence O’Neil is nervous, he rubs his beard. When the sheriff appears suddenly at an abandoned house, “his massive frame” fills the doorway.

This post is running long, so I will tackle how to describe your main characters and the problem of showing, not telling, ages in my post for next week.

Do you like characters describe in detail or not? What are some memorable descriptions you’ve read?

Write this Scene in Show Don’t Tell

Assume the point of view of one of the people in the scene or add a character of your own.

*****

I climbed on top of the jeep, spitting sand out of my mouth. The wind spun another gust into my face, and I wiped sand from my eyes.

“They’re coming! They’re coming!” our guide pointed to the shapes blurred in the dancing sand.

Clearing my eyes again, I looked through the viewfinder of my camera. After tracking the herd for a month, I could not miss this shot. As long as the wind didn’t get stronger, I could do it.

“What a way to make a living,” Dean muttered, brushing sand from his grizzled beard.

Spitting again, I grinned, and the sand tried to burrow into my teeth. “I wouldn’t want to be any place else.”

Dad Sent Me: an Easter Story

I post this story every Easter. It’s what Easter means to me. I hope you enjoy it and enjoy a blessed holiday from our Heavenly Dad.

*****

 I am trapped.

The boulder is heading straight for me. I can’t escape.  What good would it do anyway?

I’ve ended up in this exact situation before, too many times before, so why try to get away?

It’s my own stupid fault.  I finally get that.

There’s nothing I can do.

I huddle down. How much will it hurt this time? I can’t take much more pain. I am so sorry. So very, very sorry. Not that that matters.

I’m knocked to the ground.  But not by the boulder.

A man, a stranger, shoves me out of the way. I twist around to him. The boulder smashes into him and shatters into a pile of rubble, burying him.

I gape. I stare. Why would a stranger save me?

The pile moves. Flinging off the rocks, the man stands up.

I splutter, “B-b-but how?  But who?  But why?”

Brushing off the dust and dirt, the man gives me a huge grin and answers all my questions with one sentence.

“Dad sent me.”

Favorite Books for Show Don’t Tell

If one more person told me that writers needed to “show don’t tell”, I might have run screaming from the writers’ conference. I had heard that advice over and over again. I’d read it online again and again in a quote attributed to Anton Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

But it wasn’t enough for me to be told the advice. I had to be shown it. And more than that, I had to understand the why and how of the technique. I couldn’t pick it up from just reading books. I like a lot of stories that are more than fifty years old. What was considered “showing” then is classified as “telling” now.

Author/agent Tessa Emily Hall came to my rescue when she recommended the book Understanding Show Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy. I love the subtitle, (and Really Getting It).

Because I really did get it after reading this book. As Ms. Hardy explains, showing versus telling in our writing has become more critical because more and more readers are expecting the literary experience to match movies and TV Shows. She covers many topics that come under “telling” prose — point of view (POV), narrative distance, backstory, info dump, and more. What I found most helpful were lists of words that usually indicate a writer is engaging in “telling”. An appendix conveniently gathers all these word together.

Her chapter “Things That Affect Telling” takes the same paragraph and rewrites it in “showing” prose from first-person POV, third-person single POV, and third-person omniscient POV. She dissects the differences in the writing styles, and that kind of examination is what I really needed.

Another technique recommended by my friend Sharyn Kopf, who is also an author and editor, helps keep me in the showing mode.

Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View

I’ve written about deep POV before. The best way I know how to describe it is imagine yourself in Minecraft or another POV video game. You experience that game solely through your avatar. In deep POV, the reader experiences the story solely through the senses and mind of the POV character as that character lives the story.

Imagining how the character takes in information through the senses and what he or she thinks about this information or the train of thoughts it sets off keeps me from dumping too much information. For example, if my POV character is running for her life from a murderer, she isn’t going to think about how her older sister wronged her in high school. It may be important to the plot, but I have to work that in in a more logical place. Such as when she and friend talk about things they got away with in high school.

I found the chapter “Write Lively, Linear Prose” in Rivet Your Reader with Deep Point of View to be the most helpful. Sometimes, because writers know how all the action is going to end, they write it in the wrong order.

An example from Rivet:

“The hot, stuffy air caused my head to spin.”

If I was writing in deep POV, showing, not telling, I would describe first the character noticing something wrong with his head, then have the character pinpoint the cause. I am paying close attention to the order of my action, so I don’t put the cart before the horse.

Through the month of April, I will dissect examples of both “show don’t tell” and deep POV from my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes” to illustrate what I’ve learned so far about these techniques.

What are your favorite books for “show don’t tell”?

Time for Change

That’s what we need more of, right? In an effort to get more done on my novel, I will not be posting a writing tip on Tuesdays for April and May. I will still have ones on Thursdays based on my monthly theme. By June, I hope to return to my regularly scheduled posts. And I hope to make serious progress on A Shadow on the Snow.

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