Thinking about Thinking Scenes

By Sherry — I’m enjoying a cool day before the heat hits again

I confess my WIP (work in progress) is a bit of a mess. No, it is a mess. It’s due in to my freelance editor, Barb Goffman, on Sunday. Even scarier it’s due to my Kensington editor on August first. It’s the sixth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. I’ve been thinking (maybe overthinking) a lot about writing which may be part of the reason for the mess. I recently wrote about trying to improve my writing. You can find that blog post here.

Part of my problem is I had a deep emotional connection to A Good Day To Buy (number four in the series). Number five, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, felt a bit lighter to me. It has a lot of crazy, complex relationships that can occur in small towns where people sometimes know each other to well or think they do. And I love the subplots – I had so much fun writing them. Book five also answers some questions readers have been wondering about. But after A Good Day, it didn’t seem to have the same depth to me. Maybe I’m crazy saying all of this out loud. Maybe I’m tilting the reader pool to not like the book. So don’t get me wrong, I like the book, I just had a different emotional connection to it.

That brings me back to my WIP. I was having the same problem of connecting with the manuscript on an emotional level. Then combine that with some obsessive thinking about writing  and it wasn’t pretty. One of the things that’s been on my mind is black moments and I wrote a recent blog about that for Miss Demeanors. You can read it here.

I moved on from worrying about black moments to worrying about what I call “thinking scenes”. (I feel like these scenes are different than inner dialogue, although inner dialogue can be part of thinking scenes.) Then another thought struck me — aren’t thinking scenes the opposite of show don’t tell? Ugh. In a mystery it is almost unavoidable to not have the protagonist trying to put the pieces of a mystery together. So then I started pondering ways to do that.

A protagonist thinking…

One way is to have your character sitting on the couch, driving down the road, or walking some place thinking about what they know and what connections there might be.

Another, that I often see in mysteries, is having your character involved in some activity while they are trying to piece the puzzle of who dunnit together. For example Sarah could be refinishing a piece of furniture as she thinks about a murder.

Writing all this makes me realize why sidekicks are so popular. The sidekick allows the protagonist to talk it out. The sidekick can point out flaws in the protagonist’s logic or point something out that sends the protagonist in a new direction. They could also cause the protagonist to doubt themselves.

I’ve used all three in different ways in different books. There are probably a gazillion other ways to handle thinking scenes, but these three seem to be the most common. And maybe the best solution is to weave the clues together so well that the protagonist doesn’t have to have a thinking scene and only needs an “aha” moment.

Back to my messy WIP. The good news is two days ago I came up with a subplot that speaks to me on an emotional level. Now I’m working hard to weave it in as an intricate part of the story. Wish me luck!

Readers: Do you like scenes where the protagonist is putting the pieces together? Writers: Do you have a way you like to handle these kind of scenes?



24 Thoughts

  1. Great points, Sherry. As you know, in several of my series the protagonist keeps her hands busy as she thinks through the plot issues. In my new one she walks with her sidekick friend every morning and they talk through the mystery. In the book I’m writing now, you just gave me an idea, that is a reminder, to bring the sidekick back in in the words I write today!

    1. I’m glad to have given you and idea. You also use crossword puzzles which is an interesting and different way of handling thinking scenes.

  2. I don’t know that it cuts down on the number of my thinking scenes, but my rough drafts tend to be almost all dialog, even it the character is only talking to her cat! I mix things up and weave in descriptive details when I revise. I probably have more trouble making talking heads interesting than I do thinking scenes. I tend to fall back on the detective making lists of clues, suspects, etc. as the “action” in those.

    1. That is very interesting, Kathy! I end up with talking heads in the first draft but writing mostly dialogue to start sounds very appealing to me.

      1. Very interesting, Jessie! While I was doing some research for this blog, I read a lot about writing cinematically. You and Kathy are doing it right.

  3. I have no suggestions, but as a reader I say that what you do works. Some books almost scream that they need a sidekick because there is too much going on inside the main characters head but I have never had that feeling with your books. Your books are among my top must by cozy mysteries.

  4. I try to strike a balance between scenes with dialogue (and therefore other people) and thinking scenes. My first reaction to the question was that the latter are where I sneak in some humor. There are always times when our protagonist is alone, doing laundry or driving to the market, and sometimes she can talk to herself (out loud or not) and poke fun at herself for coming up with ridiculous ideas (which may actually prove useful), that she’d never say to another person. Or she can talk to the dog or cat (or in Meg’s case, the goats, who seem intelligent).

  5. Sherry, I’m dealing with this exact thing! In my last critique submission one of the comments was “can we see her working this out before she acts?” Well, she’s alone and I asked, “I thought about that and she’d be mulling – how much mulling can happen before it’s just dull? Nobody wants to read scenes where a character thinks, and thinks, and thinks.”

    My critique partner half-smiled and said, “Yeah, it’s a balance.”

    I’ve tried a combination of compressing the mulling and thrown in some mindless “cleaning the apartment while she thinks” action. I have no idea if it will work, but we’ll see. 🙂

    1. Good luck, Liz! It is a balance. I had an interesting discussion with a writing friend where I said I was trying to cut down on thinking scenes and she was trying to up hers.

  6. Thinking scenes, or at least parts of scenes, are necessary. If we don’t see how a protagonist processes all the information she (and we) are getting, we don’t know her. And if we don’t know her, we can’t get attached to her.

    That being said, I often have to add the thinking in the second or even third draft, often because, as events and conversations fly by, I don’t know what she’s thinking!

  7. I feel for you, Sherry! It was generous of you to share all your thinking. I’m sure it will help others! So glad you came up with a subplot that connects emotionally for you. I was going to suggest that, but then you said it. Good luck with the deadlines!

  8. I like those scenes because they can help form connections for me. They also usually lead me in the wrong direction, but that’s an author doing their job well.

    However, too many of them that are just rehashing everything that has happened get boring. Especially when it is one rehash scene after another. It’s a very fine line to walk.

  9. I LIKE to see the pieces pulled together. My problem is finding the time to read the books.

  10. I love reading about YOUR thinking process as you write. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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