Christmas Day found me at a small diner in Spencer, Indiana (pop. 2,212). There I breakfasted on steak and eggs and eavesdropped on local farmers who made it their customary morning stop. They shouted a greeting to each fellow who came through the door (like patrons of “Cheers” used to greet Norm) and broke into laughter when one arrived with a sheepish expression on his face. “Look who’s here!” a guy at the next table cried. “MacDonald’s must be closed today.”

Indeed it was. (That’s why I’d ventured in, too.)

Friends and neighbors get to know our habits so well that they can usually guess something is amiss if we step out of rhythm. We break stride if our favorite restaurant is closed, our car breaks down, or someone at work applies pressure to us. We are such creatures of habit that disrupted behavior signals a disrupted life.

We expect to see this happen in fiction, too. If a fictional character loses his job, ends his marriage, or watches a close friend die, he shouldn’t go about his business as usual.

Detectives watch for subtle disruptions in a suspect’s daily routine that signal something is happening beneath the surface. So do our readers. If we simply say that a character is upset, perplexed, or frightened, they feel cheated out of the thrill of discovery. But if we show the same person’s detours and fumbles, observant readers will draw their own conclusions.