Last Day of School as Writing Inspiration

This year, in the U.S., the last day of school for kids was in March or April. Yes, we have online learning, but I think the parents are looking forward to the end of it more than the kids are. Spending two hours on assignments at home is so much easier than spending six and a half hours in a school, not including drive time. The last day of school as writing inspiration can kick off all kinds of stories, whether I write about a traditional last day or how it appears in 2020.

Humor

By the last week of school, everyone involved, parents, teachers, students, and administrators, are done. Now they all mark time until the final day. A story about all these different kinds of characters, straining to hold it together until the final bell on the final day has a lot of comic possibilities.

My kids’s school system offers a lot of fun activities during the last days, such as camp, field day, and egg drops. Any outdoor activity with kids is ripe for a story of misadventures. When I helped with my oldest’s field day in kindergarten, one boy began screaming when he received a bloody nose during a game. I walked him up to the nurse’s office. When I reminded him that his class was now probably at the bounce house, he pulled himself together and rejoined his class, bouncing with the best of them.

If you aren’t familiar with an egg drop, it’s usually a challenge issued in junior high or high school. Teams are instructed to build a contraption that will prevent an egg from breaking as the contraption is dropped from greater and greater heights. Eggs, kids, and heights. I don’t really need to say more.

Nostalgia

When I was in junior high and high school, I noticed a change during the last few days or even weeks. Everyone relaxes, at least a bit. The teachers know they can’t teach any more. The kids know the teacher have lowered their expectations concerning learning. My mom would ease up on our night time routine.

As the evenings in May grew long and golden, I could sense the finality of what was happening. I didn’t want to repeat the school year. I came to hate school from the time I was in eighth grade. But it did seem like a time for reflection, looking back and looking ahead.

This thoughtful time is suitable for a story about a student who has regrets or maybe wants to accomplish something before the year ends, a teacher facing retirement, or a parent whose youngest child is finishing high school.

Beginnings and Endings

As I write this post, I realize that the last day of school can start a story or end it, but I don’t see how it could come in the middle. It just doesn’t feel right.

As a story starter, it can set the tone for a summer of misadventures, mysteries, adventures, or self-discovery. As an ending, it can wrap up a story that began with the first day of school or highlight how characters have changed during the course of the story.

For more ideas on how to use May as writing inspiration, visit my posts on graduation and other May holidays.

How would you use the last day of school as writing inspiration?

What Natural Wonders Do You Want to See?

This month I’m focusing on how nature can inspire our writing. But nature means much more to me than simply source materials for stories. I see the goodness of God in nature. It’s demonstrates His joy in the act of creation. I can clear my mind and relax when I get out into nature and away from the grind of the daily routine.

I haven’t traveled very far in my life. I’ve only flown three times. The furthest east I’ve gone is Acadia National Park in Maine, and the furthest west has been Dallas. Natural wonders I would like to see some day are:

What natural wonders do you want to see?

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.”

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