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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The Reward For A Job Well Done…

In my day job, I’d been working hard on a project for nearly a year, but turned the last of my work in back in December. Then, all I could do for that project was wait for everyone else to be done with their part. Tuesday, we had a big, milestone test, and it passed. But? It’s far from done.

But, my day job isn’t the only place where that happens, my writing works the same way.

I work hard, polish it up so it passes my own tests, and then I send it off to beta readers, or critique partners, or agents. I wait… maybe not-so-patiently for my writing to pass their ‘tests’, and then I hear back (or pass the no-answer-means-no-thank-you deadline).

So far, my responses have been positive — or at least neutral.

No one has told me my writing sucks and I should stick to reading. But? They all have ideas for improvement. Ways for my work to get better, for the plot to flow more naturally, to give the emotional core of the story a greater impact, to make the setting and main character something that an agent can connect with and draw them in.

Both of my projects already have a form, a function, and a shape. Now, it’s time to really see what I can turn them into.

This coming year is a year of revision for me. Taking rough manuscripts and turning them into a polished form. Rough stone to elegant statues.


Where are you with your projects? Are they still ideas and raw material?

Or are you ready to polish them ’til they shine?

Strength Isn’t Just For The Strong

At WorldFantasyCon, I attended a panel by this same name. Going into the panel, I expected a discussion of different types of strengths being compared to the default of physical strength. Instead, the panel veered into magical strength and stayed there.

Defining Strength

Of course, we addressed the titular topic, but the conversation just kept swaying magical.

Strength can be just an overwhelming level of power. But, to use one’s strength to accomplish one’s goals of any type is a form of competence. Be it physical, mental, mystical, or magical, without competence you end up with more of a firestorm than a laser.

Things Magic Can Represent

Magic can just be the extraordinary, but often in fantasy, it’s a way of discussing real-world issues without bringing all the baggage that its real-world counterpart has accumulated.

  1. The hubris of the human spirit
  2. It’s often an allegory for privilege or power
    1. In worlds where magic is bad – the main character is often non-magical
    2. In worlds where magic is good – the main character is often magical

Ways Magic Can Influence A Society

When certain people have power that others don’t have access to, that’s going to disrupt the social order. Just like any other sort of wealth or power.

  1. Innate magic leads to a more stringent class hierarchy
  2. Gained or earned magic tends to be in worlds with greater social mobility
  3. Availability of magic determines if it’s rare or commonplace — expensive or cheap.
  4. If magic is inherent in a place or object, that gives power to those who possess that place/object (ley lines/hubs, Dune’s dust…)

Tropes For Different Strengths

There are a lot of tropes when it comes to giving characters strengths and powers. Some are more overdone than others.

  1. Magic users are seen as more intelligent
  2. Magic types as innately light or dark
  3. Magic as a tool
  4. Magic based societies not developing more mechanical technology alongside it
  5. Using an outsider or non-magical person to introduce us to the magical world
  6. Using magic to solve everything
  7. Giving poor characters fewer skills, rather than different ones
    1. Try having a farmboy where his farming skills come in handy
  8. ‘Leveling’ the main character up everytime there’s a new boss

Types of Strengths For Villains

Heroes aren’t the only ones with strengths. Any respectable foe needs to have some strengths of their own.

  1. Some villains share the main character’s strengths… but let their moral convictions prevent them from doing the right thing or rationalize their way into the wrong thing.
  2. Some villains have good — or at least understandable motives — but their methods and the lengths they go, using their strengths to achieve their objective cross the line into monstrous.
  3. Some villains are the protagonist of their own story. The strength of their moral convictions — like Magneto in the X-Men. He might be on the wrong side, but I can’t say he’s wrong.

What sort of strengths do you have? Your core competencies?
What about your main characters and your villains?
Do they balance each other?


The panelists were Fonda Lee, Carol Cummings, Marissa Lingen, and Rhiannon Held.

New Year’s Resolutions: Dusting off my shelved manuscripts

As January firmly establishes itself, this might seem a bit late for a resolutions post, but I always planned to take January off from writing and relax some, so you haven’t missed anything.

For me, this is going to be a year of reading, revision, and reflection.

Blogging/Vlogging

I’ve got such a lovely streak going here, I’d hate to break it. So, I’ll continue putting out a new blog/vlog every Thursday on writing tips or writerly musings.

When I have them lined up, I’ll be sharing Author Spotlights or Query Corners on Tuesdays.

Plus, I’m contemplating maybe a picture post on the weekends. I’m debating if Saturday or Sunday is better. Suggestions?

Reading

They say one can’t be a writer without reading. And, finding out what’s new and good in your genre is research, right? Although, that doesn’t mean I won’t do plenty of ‘for fun’ reading.

My goal is to read 26 books this year, one every other week on average. (Although, I tend to read in binges.) I’m looking at taking breaks from writing to focus on downtime and reading in January, MarchMay, and July. And I hope that planning intentional breaks will help fight the feeling of being on a never-ending treadmill, where I fail if I let myself take a break.

So far? I’ve read a couple romances and all 4 books in Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician series. I think I’m off to a good start.

Revising

I’m sitting on a backlog of 4 manuscripts in various states — mostly collecting dust. It’s time to fix that.

I got some great feedback from a critique partner back in November for Manuscript #1 (a secondary world young adult fantasy), but it was kind of a bitter pill to swallow. I have been brainstorming and messaging with the critiquer on ways to fix it. But I took December and January off, partially sulking, partially trying to figure out how to solve the issues mentioned. I’m going to let the ideas percolate a bit more and plan to hold off until February before implementing my fixes.

Then, in April, I’m going to pull out MS #2 — the sequel to MS #1.

In June, I’m going to pull out either MS #3 (my gender-bent Robin Hood) or MS #4 (my middle-grade contemporary fantasy, where the more you connect with what you read, the more your world shifts to be like it… physically!)

Querying

Once MS #1 has been revised, again, I’m marching into the query trenches once more.

Starting in March, I intend to send out 3 queries a week for 4 months, unless I get an R&R. If it goes no where, I’ll contemplate edits in August.

Beta Readers

I’ll be reaching out to beta readers as I wrap up my revisions on MS #2 (May) and MS #3 or #4(July).  Readers for MS #2 will, by necessity, be people who have beta read or critiqued MS #1, but for the others, I’m open to a small pool of new readers.

I like to keep my beta reader pool to no more than 8 readers, typically from different backgrounds. I usually give them separate copies, so that their feedback won’t influence each other.

If my Alpha reader’s schedule permits, I’ll send my manuscripts to her for quick feedback, but otherwise, these may just go straight to my beta readers.

In August and September, I’ve blocked time to incorporate the feedback — at least for MS #2. And perhaps, some updates for MS #1 (either as query feedback suggests, or to better set up MS #2’s plotting).

Conventions

I intend to hit Balticon again (May) and WorldCon (August) in Dublin (!!). I submitted to be a panelist at Balticon… but after they’d already started sending out panel invites, so I may have been too late there. We’ll see. (Keep your fingers crossed!)

Writing

Hmmm, there’s very little actual writing on this project plan, but sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles. Besides, I’ve been assured that editing and revising and brainstorming ARE part of the writing process.

Plus? I don’t have a big idea pushing on me right now.

That said, I intend to do OctPoWriMo again — writing a poem a day for all of October. And then NaNoWriMo.

If I don’t have an idea by then, I’ll do a rebel NaNo and revise whichever manuscript hasn’t been touched.


And that’s my plan for the year. If you got a little lost, here’s the plan in chart form.

I’ll be focusing on reading every other month until the last quarter, revising most of my backlog, querying, a couple conventions, and a bit of writing.


What does your plan look like for 2019?

Did you build in flexibility?

Missing the Magic

Holiday Magic, Writing Magic

As an American with a Pagan dad and a Southern Baptist mom, I celebrate both Solstice and Christmas. As a person with friends who love hosting over-the-top parties, every year I spend a couple days helping prep for a massive New Years Eve party.

I know I’m fortunate to be at a company that shuts down for a week at the end of December. My previous company didn’t but it’s a great way to help cut down some of the holiday stress. Or give me more time to fill with family and friends…

And believe me, my schedule has been jam-packed. Full of people I love, but definitely busy.

There was one thing though, that I missed. Despite my moderately-distracted efforts.

Link to the youtube version of this blogpost.

I missed the taste of wonder, of peace, of heart-filling joy that I usually can find this time of year.

For me? Usually, it’s after sunset. Either outside, in the still and the quiet of the night, with the chill nipping at my nose and the moon shining down. Or inside, with all the lights turned down low, just sitting and basking in the light of my tree.

Image may contain: tree, sky, night, plant, outdoor and nature
The moon at night, behind dark trees. Solstice night.

Well, I found a quiet moment outside with the moon shining down — took a picture, and ran off to the Solstice celebration a friend was hosting.

I found a few evenings with my lights turned low and my tree all aglow. But, I didn’t get my sense of basking.

I don’t know if I was distracted or tired or if I just wasn’t in the proper frame of mind, but I missed it.

Now, this isn’t to say I’ve had a bad holiday! Not by any stretch of the imagination. Minimal drama, seeing almost all of those I love, lovely and thoughtful gifts, delicious food. All the things that make the season bright. But I missed the magic.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

As for my writing?

I’ve done nothing this month. But, that’s not unusual for me with my post-NaNo hangover, chore backup, and seasonal plans.

  • Some reading? Yes.
  • Some incorporation of beta-reader feedback? Only read the summary.
  • Some blogging? Of course.

Now? I sit and contemplate what I want to do next. I’ve debated incorporating the feedback and hopping back on the query road, revising a rough draft, or finding a new project.

Because? There’s the never-ceasing sensation that a deadline is looming. Only one problem with that. This writing thing? The only deadlines for are the ones I give myself. I have no agent, no editor, no contracts. True, I’d like to have that sense of ‘done’, that feeling of accomplishment. But there is no one, other than myself, staring at the calendar and waiting for me to finish. To find a publisher or publish it myself.

I think need to take a break from the writing until I’m ready. Until I’m excited once more to see how much better I can make my story. Until I’m ready to dive back into the query trenches or the editing doldrums. Until I can find the magic again.

Meanwhile? I’ll think about my worlds, I’ll take notes when inspired, and I’ll keep blogging–sharing advice I’ve received from people who DO have deadlines and have already found their audience.

And? I’ll read.


Did you celebrate the holidays? Did you find your joy?

If you’re writing for yourself, do you have trouble letting yourself take a break?