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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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