How Much Of Your Story Should Be On Stage?

I’m busy in what may be the last throes (of the first draft) of my novel these days, struggling with the tough questions that I’ve managed to put off or dodge around until this point. Some of those questions involve the staging of a central chapter and event in my novel, when a character goes on a journey. I’m discovering that that chapter has some weaker writing; my observations are simply weaker because I’m less familiar with the terrain that my character is covering. As a writer of place, whose observations are steeped in the places I’ve been, it’s proving a very big challenge to write about places I haven’t seen.

I’m not one of those writers who believes you can only write what you know. So I’m left wondering what the best way is to tackle this problem. Part of me thinks that the best way might be to fudge it a little, or to find some way to get the bulk of the action off-stage. And that’s an option that many of us can rely on when we’re struggling with presenting vague or not-that-original information.

Cliches are inevitable, but writing them isn’t.

The fact of life is that cliches happen. They are a part of normal existence; that’s why they’re cliches. We should still be allowed to write about husbands cheating on wives with their secretaries or lonely stay-at-home parents or the like. But if we try to write it on-stage, we’ll end up falling into the same tired tropes of language and imagery to describe these scenes. One solution is to let the cliche do its work of suggestion — and have the scene take place off-stage. Have people returning from the event and moving on from it, or capture the fallout in an interesting way; don’t linger on the precise type of scene that we’ve seen a hundred times before. By having the scene occur off-stage, you can just sketch in the details, and let the mind of your reader fill in the gaps. Let the power of suggestion do your writing for you.

We don’t need to see that inevitable funeral scene, for example; by now everyone knows about the flowers, the crying, the relatives, the casket. Instead, allow the funeral scene to pass off-stage. Capture people who refused to go to the funeral, or move briskly along to a week later, when grief finally sets in. Those repeating scenes are just a waste of space because we’ve seen them too many times before.


  1. BLH, interesting post. I have to be able to picture a place to write about it — to the point where if my character is in a house, I need to picture the layout, the furniture, the color of the walls — mentally walk through the place. Never mind if very little of it ends up in the book.

    I’m editing two science fiction novels at the moment, and they take places on alien planets — places where I clearly have never been. Nonetheless, I have a picture in my head of the planets, the scenery — color of the sands, mountains, vegetation, furniture in the houses, city streets — you name it.

    I have to build the picture in my head. It’s composed of both places I’ve been and those I’ve only imagined.

    Do you need to visit a place to be able to write about it? Is there someplace that’s nearby that’s like it? A movie? Book of photos?

    Good luck with your chapter.

  2. I had a related experience just last week. One of the locations of my novel is a trailer and for the first scene written inside it, I was stuck for a few days. Until I realized I didn’t really know what the inside of the trailer looked like. So I spent an hour researching online (trying to remind myself this was important, not a waste of time), and voila, the next writing session flowed. Just as Margaret said in her comment, I have to be able to picture where my characters are located, and sometimes I forget that!

  3. mary brady says:

    Writing can be quite similar to painting. Have you ever stood up close to Monet’s ‘lilly pad’ paintings? They’re HUGE & from a distance look very detailed. When you move up close, they’re simply smudges of colors & small suggestions of form.

    You need not–indeed, should not–draw every single detail you ‘think’ you see. You paint one or two flowers, suggest a few details of others, & add smears of color for the rest. The viewer’s brain actually WANTS to do the rest.

    I’ve found this is true in my writing, too. I once placed a story in a particular State–about which I knew exactly ‘jack.’
    I hit Wikipedia, was fascinated for an hour or two, took notes, then went back to the story. I’d learned some geography, a few county names, where various cultures had centered themselves, etc.

    It was enough to add veracity & even allowed me to enlarge the story a bit. But stories are about characters, I think. Readers want to know what the people (or Margaret’s aliens) are doing more than what, exactly, the scenery looks like. So why sweat it? Heck, I mostly just trust my TV/movie ideas about what other times & places looked like.

    Readers must, too, since, after long observation, I’ve discovered I am NOT unique. If I imagine things a certain way, most everyone else does, too. Hollywood has become our collective unconscious in this particular area. Acquire a general idea of the ‘place’ & roll on!

    L&K, MerryB

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