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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Author Spotlight: P.M. Hernandez

Today’s Author Spotlight is: P.M. Hernandez

 – A writer of YA paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction!


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P.M. Hernandez

Readers, let’s welcome to my blog, P.M. Hernandez. She lives in Virginia but travels the globe, finding inspiration in the colorful, mysterious, and sometimes spooky corners of it. Also, check out more about her writing at http://www.pmhernandez.com, and explore a a world where gargoyles take flight, aliens visit Earth, and magic is real.

She’s agreed to visit and share with us today some dreams, some advice, and some reading recommendations.

P.M., thanks for agreeing to be here today. Most interviews start off with bios and such, and while I’ll get to that, let’s start with the important stuff!

If you could have any pet (real/fantasy/no-allergies/no worries about feeding it) what would it be?

Definitely a dragon. You can ride them. They’re great protection. They excel at gathering and hoarding valuable objects. You’d save money on heating your house. What’s not to love?

You’re right in line with Zoe, from last week! I’ll just repeat my warning that I gave her. Many are sentient. Who would be the pet and who would be the owner?

What do you write and how did you get started?

I mostly write YA paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction. I say mostly because my editor told me my latest series is NOT young adult, or at least, only recommended for 16 and above. Who knew I could be so dark? Ha!

I got started the same way a lot of other authors did. I’ve been writing most of my life. Pretty sure my first book was for a middle school project. I wrote and illustrated a children’s book about a teddy bear. My first published book came out in 2016.

Exactly what I love and read. Now I’m curious about that teddy bear book. Is it available on Amazon? *winks*

What do you like to read?

I love anything paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction. That’s my jam. But sometimes, I break out into contemporary or historical fiction, or even non-fiction. I don’t discriminate, but I also am quick to set aside a book that isn’t thrilling me because my TBR pile is HUGE.

Doing something about my to-read pile is definitely something I’m working on this year. I’m not great at setting aside books, though. Maybe I should practice.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

“Write what you know”

I have no idea who said it first, but clearly, that person didn’t write high fantasy. I’m willing to admit, though, that there’s a kernel of truth in it. All the best made-up stuff has a touch of the real world. Otherwise, how can we connect with it? So in that sense, we’re writing about what we know, just adding trolls and magic and whatnot.

Once again, you’re agreeing with last week’s author. AND! Giving the very same caveat I gave. In far fewer words. I’m right there with you.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that they can’t pry out of your cold, dead hands.

Writing is a lonely hobby.

Writing isn’t the solo affair we think it is. We need people, and not just friends or family who will lie to us and tell us everything we write is gold.

We need people in our lives who’ll tell us difficult things and help us get better at our craft. Some of your writing circle will eventually be friends; others will be professional contacts.

Never think you’ve arrived, that you can’t learn anything new; your writing tribe will help you be a continual learner.

Everyone is a resource.

As an ambi-vert who runs several writer support groups, I’m a huge fan of finding your support people. There surely are SOME people out there who do fine solo, I just don’t know any of them (which, I’m sure is the point).

Shameless self-promotion.

I have a new science fiction series coming out this year.

It’s kind of a departure for me. Dark and Bright is my take on Frankenstein, if the monster were a teenage girl and the doctor had access to modern tech. The book is available for pre-order now, and will come out on February 1.

Fortunately, if you like it, you won’t have to wait long!

Book two, Darkening Night, will release in May. Book three, Blazing Light, will release in late fall.

Both the Dark and Bright Series and the Whitewood Journals (YA paranormal) are in Kindle Unlimited.

My YA science fiction series, Earthborn, will be in KU soon.

And finally…you can meet me in person at Roanoke Author Invasion (April 2019 in Roanoke, VA), Penned Con (September 2019 in St. Louis, MO), and Royal Book Bash in the DMV (October 2019 in Woodbridge, VA).

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?

Author Spotlight: Zoe Ashwood

Today’s Author Spotlight is: Zoe Ashwood

 – A debut supernatural romance writer!


***

Zoe Ashwood

Readers, let’s welcome to my blog, Zoe Ashwood, a translator by day, a romance writer by night, and a reader always. Her stories feature grumpy men, kickass heroines, and lots of kissing.

She’s agreed to visit and share with us today some dreams, some advice, and some reading recommendations.

Zoe, thanks for agreeing to be here today. Most interviews start off with bios and such, and while I’ll get to that, let’s start with the important stuff!

If you could have any pet (real/fantasy/no-allergies/no worries about feeding it) what would it be?

If I could have any pet, I’d have a dragon. No, seriously. It would cut down on travel time significantly, I could have it scare my enemies (or eat them if need arose), and also dragons are wicked smart, so I could learn loads.

As I am occasionally a BookWyrm, in all my red scaley dragon glory, I’ve gotta agree that Dragons are pretty awesome. Just be wary. Many are sentient. Would the dragon be the pet, or would you be ITS pet?

What do you write and how did you get started?

I write paranormal romance, though I have a couple of contemporary romances stashed deep in my computer. I used to write diaries and really bad teenage poetry, then sort of stopped when I was studying English at the university (go figure!), then started again after I’d been blogging about books for a couple of years. I participated in one NaNoWriMo and that was it!

I don’t write romance, but paranormal romance and I became good friends years ago. Except the studying English bit, that sounds like my background and entry into the writer’s life.

What do you like to read?

I read mostly romance and fantasy these days. I’m not particular about the genre of romance – paranormal, contemporary, historical, sci-fi, pretty much anything goes. I love fantasy for its endless creativity and imagination – I read both adult and YA books. Bonus points if there’s kissing involved! I also read a lot of children’s books because I have two kiddos (4 and 2 years old).

I definitely read my fair share of paranormal romance – and straight fantasy, too.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

“Write what you know”

I don’t like “write what you know.” If that was a good piece of advice, fantasy wouldn’t exist. And the world would be a sad, sad place without fantasy.

I know I’m being literal, but in this day and age (ie the age of Wikipedia and Google), there’s really no limit to what you can write about. My research has included searches about black bear eating habits, revolvers, Canadian national parks, exsanguination times for arterial wounds, and NYC diners. I had zero to little knowledge about those, and yet I wrote books with those elements (the success of those books is still undetermined, haha).

Ah, this bit of advice is, by turns, both complete bull and the truest bit of advice. You might not know black bear menus and how long it takes to bleed out, but all of us are people. But. You write love stories and that’s something most of us want to be able to share with someone else. The events and settings might be beyond reality, but the people and the emotions behind the motivations are the same in your stories as they are for people you know in the real world.

Name one commonly accepted piece of writing advice that they can’t pry out of your cold, dead hands.

Outline your stories!

It’s a controversial topic, as not everyone’s brain works the same, but writing without an outline terrifies me. I tried it (for that first NaNoWriMo) and ended up with 50,000 useless words that had to be dumped. I’ve never been happier than when I realized I could prepare for writing beforehand. I write faster and cleaner drafts when my outlines are detailed.

I’m a plantser myself. My outlines are pretty loose and mostly ignored until I get stuck, but provide a good compass for when I’m starting out.

Shameless self-promotion.

I’m super bad at shameless self-promotion. But if you’d like a free shapeshifter novella, you can get one by signing up for my newsletter. And I’m most likely to be found on either Instagram or Facebook these days.

My debut novel, Trust the Wolf is out on January 24 – I hope you’ll give it a try! You can also find it on Goodreads. Here’s the blurb!

A shirtless white young man looks to the ground beside him. In the background, a wolf stands just behind where he is looking among the trees. The trees foliage is red for high fall and the sky is overcast, with a slight brightness peeking through, suggesting daytime. At the bottom, it reads: "Trust The Wolf" by Zoe Ashwood

You never forget your first wolf.

Emilia’s first encounter with Jason is memorable: it’s not every day you see a stranger change into a wolf. Her attraction to him is undeniable, but the secret he shares shakes the foundations of her life.

Jason’s need for Emilia unnerves him. It’s his job to report shifters without proper ID, yet he can’t make himself do it this time. The decision bites him in the tail when he discovers exactly who she is. He must keep his distance—or there will be hell to pay.

Their fates entwine when rogue shifters learn of Emilia’s identity and will stop at nothing to get to her. Emilia and Jason will have to fight together or risk losing everything.

But most of all? Emilia must learn to trust the wolf.



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.