Think of your story as if a stage production

Sometimes when plotting your short story or novel, thinking of it in terms of a theatrical or film production is useful. That’s because theater and film relies heavily on physical action to make the story work; beginning novelists and short story writers sometimes lose sight of the necessity for action and so get lost in their word-heavy medium.

Four terms can help you think of your novel or short story as if it were a theatrical or film production center on staging.

The first is onstage. These are events that the reader directly reads and experiences, as if a real-time observer or an audience member in a theater. Writers always should be aware that readers consider onstage events dramatic and more important than those that they don’t see.

Events that they don’t see but that are part of a story are said to be offstage. These events can include narration, a reminiscence, an indirect quotation, or even something that happened long before the story occurred and so is inferred.

The challenge for writers is to know when a part of their story should be onstage or offstage. Generally, narration should be kept to a minimum in a story as it is not dramatic action. A reminiscence is fine so long as is it doesn’t take up too much space in the story and so long as it is important by informing the reader about the character or helping advance the plot. When inferring an event, characters usually need to be limited to very specific and brief statements about it so that readers aren’t lost wondering what is being discussed.

Often the problem with a slow-moving story is that too much of the onstage action actually needs to appear offstage. A good example would be eliminating a scene that happened several years before the story occurs and instead simply have the characters refer to it through specific references. If you shift onstage action offstage, you destage the action, a term coined by CSFW’s Steve Popkes. In rewriting, editors who recommend that onstage action be deliberately revised so that it appears offstage often use the term unstage to describe this revising.


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.