Fiction writers: Are you using too much stage direction?
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we don’t need to know that someone crossed the room, reached for the coffee cup, turned sideways, took a step forward, or glanced to the left.
Visual writers have an especially hard time with this (fiction writers who “see” their story in their head, and write down the images blow-for-blow, as though narrating a movie).
There’s nothing wrong with this writing process, of course. Just know that you’ll be more prone to adding excessive, pointless movements to your novel or short story.
Then, when revising, ask yourself if they are important to the story (sometimes, it is important that someone took a step forward!) and take out the ones that aren’t. Or, better yet, delete them all, then put back only the ones that have left holes in their absence.
Remember, stage direction is different from meaningful gesture or action.
Meaningful gestures and actions can orient the reader or give information about character or plot. Stage direction, by my definition, is pointless movement.
Here is an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World to illustrate my point. First, the original:
“See anyone milling around in the hall?” I asked.
“Not a soul,” she said.
I undid the chain, let her in, and quickly relocked the door.
“Something sure smells good,” she said. “Mind if I peek in the kitchen?”
“Go right ahead. But are you sure there aren’t any strange characters hanging around the entrance? No one doing street repairs, or just sitting in a parked car?”
“Nothing of the kind,” she said, plunking the books down on the kitchen table. Then she lifted the lid of each pot on the range. “You make all this yourself?”
Here, we get just enough to orient us–we know the woman was outside the apartment, she walked into the house, went into the kitchen, and the narrator followed her there. But Murakami doesn’t actually say that. He allows us to infer those movements from the dialogue and the light peppering of action and description.
Now, here is the same excerpt re-written with way too much stage direction:
“See anyone milling around in the hall?” I asked. I poked my head into the hallway and looked left and right.
“Not a soul,” she said.
I undid the chain, let her in, and quickly relocked the door. She walked inside and stood near the coat rack.
“Something sure smells good,” she said, looking toward the kitchen. “Mind if I peek in the kitchen?”
“Go right ahead,” I said, following her as she walked down the hallway and into the kitchen. “But are you sure there aren’t any strange characters hanging around the entrance? No one doing street repairs, or just sitting in a parked car?”
“Nothing of the kind,” she said, plunking the books down on the kitchen table. Then she walked over to the stove and lifted the lid of each pot on the range. “You make all this yourself?”
Some would argue that you need beats to break up dialogue—actions, gestures, and stage directions that give the reader a sense of grounding, so that your dialogue doesn’t turn into “talking heads.”
But those gestures, ideally, should serve some purpose beyond breaking up the dialogue. Otherwise they clutter up your writing. Do they add clarity? Give us a sense of place? Show character? Reveal something about the story?
Remember, it’s a balance. We don’t necessarily have to hold every single gesture up to a microscope.
But if you notice that your characters are shifting, nodding, twitching, lighting cigarettes, walking across the room, etc. *constantly* then it’s time to take out the red pen
When you add too much stage direction, you deny your reader the chance to make your story theirs. Read the above examples again, and honestly ask yourself which you prefer. Notice how the first, original excerpt feels roomier? As though you are participating in the story, instead of being held at arms length?
Readers need space to enter the story. If we constantly smashing them over the head with every tiny pedestrian detail, they have no room to live inside the story themselves. We effectively block them out of it by explaining too much. It seems counter-intuitive, but leaving out excessive stage direction is one way that fiction writers can invite readers into our story world, keeping them more engaged and happier in the process.
Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.