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Keeping the Action Onstage

action graphicA common mistake many beginning writers make is telling the reader about something important that happened instead of showing it in a scene. Case in point: most of you know that I teach various writing classes online. Recently I read the opening of one of my most talented students, a woman who has already sold two books but wants to break out of e-publishing and sell to one of the print houses.

Her opening scene was a good one. She showed her heroine in her ordinary world as she waited for her stepmother to return from an errand. She’s worried about the stepmother, who is much later than normal. She hopes nothing has happened to her. The scene ends when the stepmother comes home and tells the heroine they have to run because the villain is coming to arrest them. So we have a nice, exciting hook which is the inciting incident.

The next scene begins with the heroine standing over her dead stepmother’s body and wondering what she is to do now. We never see them run. We never see what happened and how the stepmother died. The writer just skipped right over the most exciting event of all. All that drama and tension and suspense and emotion that could have been part of her opening chapters has been ignored. I couldn’t believe it, and yet I don’t know why I was surprised. In the contests I judge, I see this kind of thing all the time. And the authors are always surprised and a bit perplexed when you point out that they’ve committed a huge mistake.

Just in case I haven’t, let me make this clear: never skip an important, dramatic event in your story. Always, always, show important events in active scenes. We the reader do not want to read about something that happened off stage and hear about it after the fact. We want to see what happens, as it’s happening.. This is one of the reasons some backstory events are shown in flashbacks – so that the reader can experience them and really understand how the character(s) feels about them.

I want to stress, however, that this “skipping” mistake isn’t limited to beginners, nor is it limited to openings. I have a favorite author who drives me crazy in the way she completely skips over important plot points and then tells you they happened later on. I almost stopped reading her because of it. She’s been known to skip over a death of an important character and you don’t learn of it until a later chapter. It’s almost an afterthought. Oh, yeah, you imagine the author thinking, I never told them that Mary died. Better do that now.

Or she’ll have a woman write a “Dear John” letter to her absentee fiancé and you never get to see the letter. You just find out later on that he received one. That’s enough to make a person want to throw a book across a room.

So let me say it again: don’t do this. Don’t cheat your reader out of the experience of living through a dramatic event right along with the character. Readers don’t want to hear about something that happened off stage. They want to experience it live.  Show us the scene. Then you won’t have to tell us about it afterward. We’ll already be there.

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