Three powerful Show-Don’t Tell-themes to put in your life-changing novel this season

show and tell Christmas themes

Anyone catch the snowball fight in Buffalo yesterday?

While I watched the Vikes struggle it out against the Panthers, the Bills and Colts had an epic pigskin fight in the snow:

Hubs said, “We could use some of that snow. It doesn’t even look like Christmas around here.”

Of course, we have a smidgen of snow, but admittedly, we are used to drifts and snow castles this time of year.

(this is NOT this year…this is from years past…)

So sure, you might tell us it’s Christmas time, but we’d like a little SHOW, er SNOW please.

Show me, don’t tell me!

The fact is, although the heart can be told something, sometimes it needs to see it to believe it.

I finished writing a novel last week—the epic finale to my Montana Rescue series. I was a little worried about it because I didn’t have my typical “truth teller” in the story, a wise old guy who drops in nuggets of wisdom. I had to rely on the transformation of my characters to reveal the truths of the story. But it occurred to me as I wrote that sometimes that’s the best kind of storythe kind that makes the reader take a second look, that makes them dig deep into the truths and appropriate them through the experience of the characters.

Like, oh, say, the Greatest Story Ever Told…the Christmas Story.

The ultimate Show-Don’t Tell, I Love You, and I’ll Prove It message from God. Jesus is the action and the words, the show, as well as the tell from God.

Our pastor said something this Sunday that is ringing with me: “Truth from heaven should affect our daily life.” It made me think about my life. Do I SHOW the experiences of truth in my life? Or do I just talk about it? And how does it affect my writing life?

If you want a powerful story, here are three themes we can take from the Ultimate Story to weave into our own.

  1. JUSTICE. The world is not fair. It’s a horrible lesson we learn as children. And it gets worse as we get older—we see the injustice in the world and it calls to us to fix it. But it never seems like we can do enough. Thankfully, this will end. God will enact justice upon our evil world. (Revelation 19:11-16). This is not the end. But what does that have to do with story? As inspirational writers, we need to remind the world of hope—that justice will prevail. Give your reader a sense of justice in your story, that taste of things to come.
  2. SACRIFICE. Thankfully, GOD is also not fair. Because if he were, we’d surely be doomed. This is what Christmas is about—God saving us when we didn’t deserve it. But it came at great sacrifice. There can be no redemption, no salvation without death. Even in your stories—your character must “die” to himself, to his will, to his pride in order to be transformed. Make your character sacrifice something of himself to show this death.
  3. REDEMPTION. BUT THERE IS HOPE. And that is the point of a great story. Do not leave your readers, or your characters despairing. Because we do not live in a tragedy when we have Christ. (Romans 10:13 – for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!”). We show hope through the redemption of our characters. They should be different at the end than they were in the beginning. Think differently, act differently. Have a different life. Show us living in their happy ending. (we often say, have them DO something at the end they couldn’t at the beginning!)

As writers who want to make an impact on our world, we need to remember: We are the testimony. We are the purveyors of light. We are the vessels that reveal truth. Our stories should overflow with hope.

This season, give your readers a taste of what awaits us. (Romans 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

Your story matters. Write something brilliant!

Susie May

P.S. One of our epic morning chats during the Deep Thinker’s Retreat 2017 will be about how to put reader-engaging themes into your story! If you want to write stories that impact the world, we’d love to help you. (in February, in Florida!) Join us for the 2018 Deep Thinker’s Retreat Feb 23-27.

The What and Why of Writing: Layer or Subplot

There are so many details that go into plotting our stories – one simple way to think of plotting is  everything that happens to our hero and heroine: The Inciting Incident(s). The Ds (Disappointments) or obstacles, that force them to face Ys in the Road and ask the question, “What do I do now?” over and over again. The Black Moment, which is a repeat of the Dark Moment of the past. And the long-awaited Happily-Ever-After, where our hero and heroine ride off into the sunset …

Sorry. I lapsed into a romantic cliché there, didn’t I?

It’s vital to plot a strong main story, but while you’re doing that, remember to deepen your story too. How? Weave in an intriguing Layer or Subplot


A story Layer and a Subplot are two different elements:

  • A Layer adds depth to the plot and enhances the character’s struggle – and eventually his/her Epiphany.
  • A Subplot is its own distinct story. It has an Inciting Incident, Obstacles, a Black Moment, and lessons learned (and hopefully a Happily Ever After).


A Layer deepens the theme of the story. Remember: theme is the overall idea of your story and can usually be summarized in one word such as courage or forgiveness or grace. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings one of the themes is power. Tolkien weaves in the layer of Saruman the wizard to show what happens when power is corrupted.

A Subplot can mirror the main plot, and even intersect with it, but it has its own main characters, its own arc, and if pulled out of the story, could stand alone as a mini-story.

In the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, the main story is about the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Hugo wove many subplots within Les Misérables: Fantine’s story, Cossette’s story, Eponine’s story – and interestingly, when he wrote Les Mis, Hugo divided the novel into volumes highlighting each character’s storyline.

The main thing to remember is that you are deepening your story as you weave in a Layer and/or a Subplot. If you add a Layer to your story, keep it simple, asking yourself which character might act as a Voice of Truth for your hero or heroine to teach them something new about the theme.

When you build a Subplot, allow it to be a testing ground for “what if.” What happens if a certain choice is made – or isn’t made? What lesson are your hero and heroine learning? Is there a smaller lesson, or a piece of that lesson, that you can highlight through the Subplot characters?

Consider your work-in-progress: Can you deepen the story by adding a Layer or Subplot? 

[Tweet “The What and Why of Writing: Layer or Subplot by @bethvogt”]

Unlock the Secret to Powerful Stories

This secret will change the way you craft stories. I’m not kidding. What I’m about to tell you will impact your writing all the way to the core and maybe even get you published.

I’ve been judging a contest. I feel like I could cut and paste the same comments in each one.

  • What does the hero/heroine want?
  • What is the story question?
  • What journey are they going on?
  • Author’s inciting incident has nothing to do with the opening scene.
  • What is his/her fears? Desire? Give a hint of these in the opening.
  • What is the dark moment from her past?
  • Show some sort of competence. Meaning, a superpower (what he/she does well.) Good at his/her job.
  • Show confidence in the midst of failings and weaknesses.
  • What is the black moment?
  • What can the hero/heroine do at the end they can’t do in the beginning?


But all these things boil down to two big questions:

  • What is the story ABOUT?

  • What is the moral of the story? (What truth does your character learn?)


I was recently reading a budding author’s work where the heroine is called upon for a dangerous task. But there was no leading up to how this would impact her own life. Sure, it’s challenging and exciting to be on a dangerous adventure, but at the end of the day, all of that is just busyness if it doesn’t bring about change in the protagonist.

The author’s writing was fine. She knew how to show and not tell. She employed good pacing. An even balance of dialog and prose. I didn’t agree with some of the character’s motivations but the author used motivation to justify the events on the page.

However, even after two chapters, I still didn’t know what the protagonist wanted. There was no HINT at what her epiphany might be at the end of the book.

Thus, I didn’t care about her as much as I could have.

Even for a simple romance, the story must be about something. A life lesson. A moral. A spiritual truth.

Yes, the story on the surface in about falling in love, but really it’s about coming to some life understand. An epiphany.

In the movie, The Proposal, Margaret fell in love with Drew but only after they both fought through their fears, lies and hang ups. That’s what the movie was about. Coming to some truth that changed them.

The same principle applies to suspense or thrillers. The story isn’t about how John McClane stops a bunch of terrorist. It’s about realizing what’s important in life. His wife. His family.

The conflict of the story is how coming to truth through the book’s events, also known as the plot, bring light and life to the protagonists.  This becomes the moral of the story – as seen through the characters.

Answering the questions posed here also deepens your connection with the characters. The dialog becomes about more than conversation to get the characters from point A to point B. It becomes about telling the story. About the little reveals of the characters inner self.

Remember: All stories are about people. Go through your story and see if by the end of the first chapter, there isn’t some hint at what the protagonist wants. A hint of a want or fear.

Note:  I’ve seen books that hint at the want and fear, but alas, it they nothing to do with the story. If the protagonist wants to be a big time lawyer, and gets fired from his job, but the story is about him rescuing his kidnapped kid, then what he wants in the story is to be a good father, not a good lawyer.

Simple questions create powerful stories.  What does your character want? Why? What stands in His/Her way?  What Truth will your character learn? What is the moral of your story?

Keep it simple, that’s the secret.


Rachel Hauck, My Book Therapy, The Craft and Coaching Community for NovelistsBest-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She excels in seeing the deeper layers of a story. With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novel. A worship leader, board member of ACFW and popular writing teacher, Rachel is the author of over 15 novels. She lives in Florida with her husband and her dog, Lola. Contact her at:

Conversations: First Chapter Essentials

“I’m angry with you!”  Sally said as she sat down.  She was smiling, so I frowned.  “You let me write the first chapter before I was ready.”

“Oh, that,” I said.  “Yes, I did, knowing you weren’t quite ready. But I knew you had so much story in you that if you didn’t get started you’d only get frustrated.  I know why you weren’t ready, but you tell me.”

“I didn’t really know what my character wanted, nor how to hint at his greatest fear in the first chapter, so I created exactly the wrong scene.”

“You created the scene that helped you jump start your story. You were doing a lot of “Wax On, Wax Off” and getting ansty.  So, I told you to simply let your character walk onto the page and let him start talking.  Did I know you’d have to rewrite your chapter?  Yes. But every author has to rewrite – it’s a part of the process.  I encouraged you to write for three reasons:

First – it gave you a chance to hear your character speak and see if he fit the profile you created for him.

Second – it allowed you into the story to get excited about writing and see your words on the page.  Part of writing is just the success of building scenes and chapters and then believing you can do it all the way to the end.

Third – It made my job of convincing you that you needed to start in a different place easier, because once you saw the story, you realized that it needed to move faster.” I smiled.  “Authors often think we have to lay out all the information about a character in the beginning. I wanted you to get that out of your system so you could go back and rebuild the chapter with just the essentials.”

She made a face at me, then smiled. “Okay, Mr. Miyagi, what are the essentials of the first chapter?”

“I watched Frequency, an old, but favorite movie this weekend.  I love the opening because it so well captures all the elements of the first chapter/scene.  The story is about a fireman and his son, and how they reconnect via a time/sun spot anomaly.  It’s a thriller, fabulously plotted, and if you have a chance to see it, you should.”  (btw:  Here’s the YouTube clip of the first scene:

“The first 2 scenes capture what I consider the 5 essentials of the first chapter.

  1. It sets up the character’s Competence (or what he does well).
  2. It sets up his inner journey issue – that he isn’t “behind” his son. He’s too much of a risk taker. (the bicycle scene)
  3. It sets up the greatest fear – him taking too much of a risk so that they lose each other.
  4. It shows what both characters want in a very poignant moment when the “Little Chief” (the other main character, John) sees what they want, or what their focus is: a great family.
  5. Something happens that ignites the plot, and sets up the Inciting Incident.  In this case, it’s the aurora borealis.

Note: Because this movie is a thriller, these first scenes also set up the suspense plot (the nightingale murders hinted at in the radio).

All this is wrapped up in his home world – the 5 W’s – who he is, when it is, where it takes place, what he does for a living, and why (his current motivations).

By the end of the first chapter, your reader has to know through the action and dialogue these five things: Competence, Lie, Fear, Focus/Want, Ignition.

I made it into a nice little acronym for you, because that helps me remember everything as I write, but think of it like a CLIFF…and you are about to send your character off it.  You want us to see him before he goes flying into the story.”

“I should have expected another acrynom,” she said, winking.  “So, when I rewrite I want to create a scene that shows these five things.”

“Exactly.  Tomorrow, in Quick Skills, I’ll give you some ideas on what to ask your character if you are stuck.  Here’s the truth.  A great novel isn’t written – it’s rewritten.  (I don’t know where that quote comes from, but it’s not mine.) Sometimes you just need to let your character speak to you before you can craft that first scene. But if you want to build a solid story foundation, you have to start with him on the edge of the CLIFF.”

Sally was somewhere else.  Finally she looked at me and smiled.  “I’m not angry at you anymore,” she said.

“I’m very glad to hear that.”

Truth:  Rewriting is your friend.  Letting your character have some breathing room in the first chapter allows you to get to know him, but it may not be your actual first scene.

Dare:  When you’re ready, go back to the beginning and craft a scene with the 5 essentials.

Tomorrow in Quick Skills: some questions to ask your character to help you build that solid first chapter!

Susie May

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