Eliminate Unnecessary Stage Directions

Nat Russo Basics, How-To, Process, Writing 26 Comments

One of the best directors of the twentieth century, perhaps all time, had this to say:

Alfred Hitchcock was accused of many things in his day, but being “dull” was never one of them. The little dull bits known as “stage directions” that are cluttering your work are driving readers away. Let’s see how to avoid them.

What are stage directions?

If we’re told to avoid something, it usually helps to know what we’re supposed to look out for. Stage directions are small beats in your prose that seem, at first glance, like action beats. After all, it’s a character doing something. In reality, however, they often come across as “smack the reader over the head with the Hammer of Obvious” beats.
 
Here’s a list of common stage directions:
  • Reaching
  • Turning
  • Looking
  • Walking
  • Entering
  • Exiting
  • Glancing
  • Lifting
  • Pushing
  • Pulling
  • I can already feel my lids drooping from the sleep-inducing dullness of all the “ing” words, so I’m going to leave it with… “etc.”

 

Why should we avoid them?

Stage direction impacts your pacing directly by slowing it down wherever it appears. Take this small scene as an example:

“No, I won’t,” Jim said through a mouthful of spaghetti.

“You’d better,” Mike said. “It’s your ass on the line.”

“The only thing on the line is Bob’s reputation, and you know it. So does Bob, for that matter.”

“Bob doesn’t know I’m here.”

“You can’t break wind without Bob’s permission, and now you expect me to believe you’ve grown enough chest hair to approach me without him knowing about it?”

“Look, I –“

“Piss off.” Jim slammed the door as he left.

My one-syllable names notwithstanding, we have a tense situation here. We can see that Jim is a player of some sort, Bob wants him to do something, and Mike is some kind of lackey who usually doesn’t act independently. More importantly, however, the tension carries us from line to line. We practically skip over the “said”s to get to the next spoken word. We’re moving fast.

Now let’s completely destroy it with some stage direction. As we were imagining the scene in our minds (as the writer) there was a hell of a lot more eating going on. I think we need to make sure the reader is aware of this. So let’s completely beat them over the head with it for giggles. What do you say?

Warning: This is going to hurt your eyes (and your intelligence)…oh so much. Please humor me. [If you get tired before you reach the end, at least compare the final paragraph in this version with the final paragraph in the previous one.]

“No, I won’t,” Jim said through a mouthful of spaghetti. He reached for his napkin and wiped some sauce off his face. He put the napkin back down when he was finished.

“You’d better,” Mike said. He nearly toppled his wine glass as he reached for it and picked it up. “It’s your ass on the line.” He reached out and set the glass down, careful not to make the same mistake.

Jim swallowed some spaghetti so he could talk. “The only thing on the line is Bob’s reputation, and you know it.” He covered his mouth to stifle a burp from the acid reflux. “So does Bob, for that matter.” He reached out to put his fork down and picked up his wine glass. He lifted his elbow and tilted the glass to get a taste, then reached out to set the glass back down on the table next to his napkin.

“Bob doesn’t know I’m here.” Mike reached for his fork and picked it up. He shoveled a meatball into his face.

Jim exhaled sharply and needed to wipe his face again. He reached out and picked up his napkin and rubbed it over his lips. He set the napkin down and reached out to pick up his wine glass. “You can’t break wind without Bob’s permission.” He lifted his glass and took a sip. “And now you expect me to believe you’ve grown enough chest hair to approach me without him knowing about it?” He set his glass down and picked up his fork.

“Look, I –“

“Piss off,” Jim said. He put his glass down and pushed himself away from the table. He stood, pushed the chair back in, turned toward the door and started walking. When he arrived at the door, he reached down, grabbed the door knob, turned it, pulled the door open, stepped through, and gave the door a solid slam behind him.

If you’re anything like me, the only tension in this version was in controlling your desire to kill the writer. In all seriousness, though, do you see how this second version dragged on…and on…and on? All of the tension we had in the original version was completely bled out through unnecessary stage direction and extra beats.

Stage direction (or any non-dialogue beats) in a dialogue-heavy scene will always be interpreted by the reader as a passage of time. I didn’t change any of the dialogue. But how much slower does it seem?

It’s easy to think the reader won’t “get it”. When we’re writing our 1st draft, and we’re plowing through a scene, we’re often thinking of that individual scene in a linear fashion. X happens, then Y, then Z, etc. We’re thinking so logically about the order of events that it’s easy to make the mistake of adding stage directions. “Well, how can I just say Jim left if Jim is still sitting at the table?”

It’s easy. You type “Jim left”. But sometimes we don’t think like that, and we end up with that abomination of a scene exit in the second version of our example. Yes, it’s exaggerated, but you get the idea.

When should we use them?

Stage directions should only be used for those explicit actions that absolutely must be spelled out for the reader. And by “must”, I mean that leaving it out will either render the scene unintelligible, or it will miss a crucial characterization moment.
 
Here are some reasons to use stage direction:
  • Plot Advancement: 
    • Bipsy touched the Magical Magnet of Magnus. In your milieu, that has special significance and may change the expected outcome of the story.

 

  • Characterization: 
    • Johnny flicked the cigarette butt at Susie because she was 5 minutes late getting home from work.
    • Additionally, sometimes you can use a character’s external action to contrast what they’re actually feeling. This can build tension.

 

  • Suspense:
    • Will Bipsy reach the Magical Magnet of Magnus before Johnny can light another cigarette? For the love of all that is holy, he better! So we reveal small stage directions to indicate a synchronization of actions. This can build tension as well, because we can intentionally lead the reader to expect a different outcome.

 

  • Synchronizing complex events:
    • This will sound like the “suspense” synchronization, but what I’m referring to are those scenes that you write from two or more points of view. You can use external actions and stage direction to “synchronize” events in those separate sections. For example, in my work in progress I use the tolling of a bell for a scene I write from two different perspectives. This allows the reader to think “oh hey! THAT’S where we are in time right now.”

 

Managing your stage directions well can be crucial to pacing and overall readability. Too many stage directions and you’ll drain the lifeblood of your story (the drama and tension). Too few and you leave the reader navigating without a compass and any idea of where True North is.

As always, it’s a delicate balance. Do your best, polish it, then hand it to someone else to read. Hopefully you’ve cultivated some objective readers who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. Cherish these readers! They’ll tell you if your characters are “reaching and turning” too much.

I’d love to hear from you! Let me know what you think about stage direction in the comments below. As usual, there are very few “right” and “wrong” answers in this art, so it’s great to get as much perspective as we can.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 26

  1. Thanks Nat. I appreciate these advice columns. This one in particular hits home, as I know I always struggle with how much to describe of the actions and expressions accompanying a dialogue. I used to write prose very much like your final paragraph in example two, but I’ve gotten somewhat better. This advice will, I think, help me to get better still.

    1. I’m glad you liked the article, Paul! My beta reader highlights all of the “reaching” and “turning” I do. (And in my latest revision I seem to have added “squinting” for some odd reason.) It took me a while, and I still struggle, but knowing you’re doing it is half the battle!

  2. Oh this is really helpful. Let the reader imagine the scene. By describing every detail you take away any freedom to visualize the action. Like book covers. Some are too confining. A woman looking out to sea. Well already I have in my head exactly what she looks like, rather than my own image. Better to have a picture of the sea…Talking fiction writing of course.

    1. I agree completely, Carol! A reader’s subconscious mind will fill in many of the details we feel we must include, and that’s what makes the experience of a book different for everyone. There’s a saying, and I’ll forget who coined it: “The writer starts a book. The reader finishes it.”

    2. This is anther one of your sayings that I will remember. Thanks Nat. I have been texting with my best friend, she is in Ga. and I told her about your quote -the one about failing, being a chance to celebrate, as we now know another way NOT to do something. I am sending her your blog link. She is a professor at Kennesaw, looking to learn more about tweeting…she has 4 accounts.

    1. Thanks, Alison! Turning and Reaching were enormous problems for me. It took quite some time to break the habit, and I still see them creeping into my prose from time to time.

    1. Very true. It took a long time for me to learn the lesson, and I’m sure my next 1st draft, though better than previous ones, will still have a little too much stage direction.

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  3. Nat, this is a great article and definitly hit home for me. I know I have such a strong tendency to do this. In my mind when I write I think too logically like he can’t possibly leave the house without getting up from the table first. This article definitely opened my eyes to this, thank you!

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      You’re very welcome!

      It was a huge problem for me at first, and it took quite a while to train myself out of it. Once I did, my prose became more powerful than ever before!

  4. This is a great general rule, but like you said, there are probably exceptions. I can imagine a scene where one character needs to get going but can’t until the conversation is over. The other character’s stage directions and slowing of the scene would in that case build tension. Or if the point of the scene was not the kind of tension above. But these are just more examples of making sure that you *use* the stage directions rather than just write them in because you don’t trust your readers.

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      Couldn’t have said it better! That’s really it in a nutshell. There’s nothing wrong with stage directions in general. The responsibility of the writer is to make sure they’re used like any other tool in their writer’s toolbox, which involves first making sure the proper tool is chosen for a specific job.

  5. At least for me, it’s much easier for me to figure out this after a few rewrites. In draft one, everything feels important. By draft 5 or 6, I realize that most of my “stage directions” sound like I typed them in court on a stenograph machine.

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      So true!

      I like to have a “cooling off” period of several weeks after I complete my 1st draft before plunging into editing. Like you said above, when I’m in the middle of the draft, I’m too close to it. Every word I’ve written feels sacrosanct. After that cooling off period, however, everything is fair game.

  6. Stellar advice, Nat! I’d like to add that it’s important to watch out for “internal;” stage direction: phrases like “he felt”, “he heard”, “he saw” etc. When you’re in someone’s POV, it can be assumed that everything you mention is something the character experiences. The above phrases actually weaken the illusion of sensory immersion with the character and come off as though the writer doesn’t trust the reader to figure out who is experiencing the scene.

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      Absolutely! The name for those sorts of words are “filter words”, and the act of using them is something an editor will refer to as “filtering”. And when you think about it, it’s a fitting name. A filter slides in between the source and the consumer and removes something from the signal. Same is true in fiction. Every time a writer chooses to filter, they’re placing something between the PoV character and the reader, and in the process removing something crucial.

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