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.