Reorient your story’s plot by shadow staging

One variation of developing a story is to present a crucial event’s consequences rather than directly telling or showing it. Using this approach is called shadow staging, a term coined by Cambridge SF Workshop creator Steve Popkes.

An excellent example of shadow staging is the novel and motion picture “Sophie’s Choice,” by William Styron (Warning: plot spoilers ahead). The story, set in 1947, examines the seemingly inexplicable behavior of a Polish woman named Sophie and her Jewish lover, Nathan, as seen through the eyes of a writer named Stingo. Nathan is a self-medicating paranoid schizophrenic, but the cause of Sophie’s actions is a dark secret that she reveals near the book’s end – the Nazis forced her to choose which one of her two children would be gassed. The consequences of this tragic event leaves her an alcoholic and deeply depressed.

To a large degree, shadow staging creates a mystery that needs to be resolved; in the case of “Sophie’s Choice,” Stingo, and by consequence the reader, want to learn what brings a beautiful woman like Sophie to become alcoholic and depressed. If that secret were revealed in the story’s opening (as it’s the out-of-whack event that transforms Sophie) then we’d have quite a different tale, specifically one in which Stingo and the reader want to see how she comes to terms with this tragedy by ending her self-guilt and addiction to the bottle.

Hence, use of the technique largely depends upon the type of story you want to tell. Arguably, since most stories present the out-of-whack event in the opening paragraphs and the rest of the tale focuses on overcoming it, reorienting that inciting incident offers the advantage of being a more unique and (at least during the opening days of such a writing trend) interesting story. A significant challenge for the author using shadow staging – like a mystery writer who presents a crime that must be solved – is to not reveal the secret too early but to leave enough clues that allows for the secret to be believable.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.