Show. Don’t Tell: Readers Don’t Need Stage Directions

This month, I’ve been beta-reading and critiquing — short stories, a full manuscript, queries, and online snippets. I know I’m far from the first one to call out this issue, not even the first blogger this week on my feed, but I’ve been reading a lot of stage direction where it doesn’t belong.

What is stage direction?

If you’re in a play or a tv show or a movie, stage direction is a great thing — at least for the actors. It tells them where to stand, what to grab, and when to leave.

Here’s a snippet that was in an early draft of one of my manuscripts:

We passed a couple small townlets before reaching our destination later than I would have liked. We were both at fault for getting a slow start that morning. Fine, I suppose I should blame the slow progress on a break or two I’d requested. I would rather credit the mud weighing down my boots. Stopping to clear off a layer or four of mud was a very useful task for boosting my walking endurance. I decided to mark them as unavoidable delays.

It’s easy to fall into, especially when drafting fast or struggling for word count. You’re figuring out where the character is going and what they’re doing — and that’s okay. That’s to be expected.

But, when you come back to edit, you should recognize it for what it is and fix it.

Why is stage direction bad, in writing?

Stage direction is handy. It’s useful, both for the actor or the writer. But it’s a pretty explicit example of telling, not showing.

And? It isn’t needed by the audience.

Why doesn’t the reader need stage directions?

  1. You should be showing what happens.

    Like watching a movie, scenes should unfold, not be described.

  2. It’s boring.

    It’s a series of ‘this and then that.”

  3. Trust your reader.

    You don’t need to say, “he extended his hand, then grasped the congressman’s hand in a firm handshake.” Readers should know how handshakes work.

How To Fix ‘Stage Directing’ In Your Writing

Ways to show action without falling into stage direction format:

  1. Pick verbs that show the character’s attitude toward an activity.

    Instead of walking, your character might be striding in (one can almost see their head held high, eager or nervously ready to face the room). Versus one trudging in (scuffing their filthy shoes, eyes downcast is almost implied).

  2. If you’re in a close point-of-view, add in mental reactions.

    “With a tight smile, he shook the congressman’s hand and struggled not to share a piece of his mind.”

  3. Filter in non-action sentences

    Instead of a paragraph, detailing all the activities taken and nothing else, alternate with other sorts of sentences.

Ways To Break Up Action Sequences

  1. Dialogue
  2. Other characters’ reactions
  3. Description
  4. More mental opinions
  5. Here’s a great place for a single sentence of info-dump or background.

Dusk was coming in before I saw the chimney smoke heralding our destination.

“Wish we’d gotten a faster start, we might miss prayers at this rate,” I grumbled, forcing my throbbing feet to pick up the pace.

“You that worried?” Gellin looked back at me.

“I’d just rather be there before dark.”

“Hey, you’re the one who had to stop every hour to scrape the mud off her shoes,” he held out his hands, blamelessly, and I glared at him.

“The mud was slowing us down, or at least me. Those delays were inevitable!”I said, not wanting to admit my feet were novices to the road.

The difference is twenty-five words. Hardly a drop in the bucket, but the world you see is a lot less abstract.


Can you find examples of telling, instead of showing in your writing? Sometimes you need a friend to help you see them.

Best of luck writing and revising!

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