Toolbox Tuesday: Stage Directions

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances . . .

William Shakespeare

 

Last week we discussed tags and how best to use them. This week, we are going to look at the best use of what most authors call “stage directions.” Stage directions are those things that show what the character is doing during a conversation with another character.

Tip #1: Use stage directions to show your characters doing something.

None of us stand around and just talk. Either we are doing something (which is what this tip is about) or things are going on around us (which is what tip #3 is about).

One of the fastest ways to bore readers is to have long sections of conversation with the characters doing nothing at all. Even if your character is loading a dishwasher, chopping wood, or shuffling papers on the desk because that darn contract just has to be found, they should be doing something. If the action is tied to one of the conflicts in the story, then all the better, but more on that in a moment (again – tip #3).

The exception to tip #1, of course, is a particularly important conversation which is so fraught with conflict the character would truly be doing nothing because they are focusing all their energies on the conflict or a decision which needs to be made. This, however, should not be happening in every scene.

Tip #2: Use stage directions sparingly.

Like tags, stage directions have their place. They can, however, become annoying. When used excessively they clog the flow of the story and pull the reader out. And, like I have said before, pulling the reader out of the story is NOT what you want to do.

Tip #3: Make stage directions about conflict and/or emotion.

The best stage directions are those that add to the conflict and/or show emotion

Even in real life, people do not sit around and talk while staring at each other in a catatonic, paralyzed state. A pencil is wagging. A child is screaming somewhere. The mower is going next door. These small stressers are external. They heighten the conflict of the scene, but other than frustration, they add little else.

The best stage directions are those that pose external and internal conflict, although this is not possible in every scene.

Perhaps the person tapping the pencil is your character’s boss, and he/she always does this before firing an employee, and without the job said character cannot pay for the cancer treatments for her dog. Or perhaps the crying child has the colic, and the mother thought the new medicine was working and she has not slept in three nights and she simply cannot call in sick today or she will lose her job. As for the mower, it reminds your character of the low hum of a helicopter that flew over their head in the Gulf War just before a land mine exploded, taking their best friend.

The first stresses are external conflict added to dialogue. Up the ante and twist them into an emotion tied directly to the conflict in the story and the characters external/internal goals or personal foibles and you have sucked the reader into the story on a deeper level.

Now, for two examples of stage directions.

The first is a scene from Keeping Secrets that has no stage directions at all, although there are snatches of “thoughts” by Annie.

“You sure have been quiet today,” Katie said.

“I feel bad for David. He was afraid his Pa would remarry.”

A wicked grin broke across her sister’s face.  “I think he doesn’t want our parents to marry because he wants to marry you someday.”

“For crying out loud, Sister, he’s too young to get married.”

“Gran said she knew at twelve she wanted to marry Poppy,” Katie said.

And Mama, Annie remembered, said she had been friends with Amon since they were children.

“That does not mean David wants to marry me, and I certainly do not want to marry him.”

“And I think,” Katie yelled after her, “that neither you nor Mama know what you want!”

The above is boring. It is only conversation, and there is no movement in the story. Despite the obvious annoyance Annie has at her sister, and the inner conflict over David which has been set up in previous scenes, this scene stagnates.

Now, the sames scene with a few well placed stage directions:

Annie slipped to the chicken coop on her right and reached into the straw filled cubes, pulling out half a dozen brown and cream colored eggs and putting them in her basket.  basketeggs

“You sure have been quiet today,” Katie said.

“I feel bad for David.” She walked to the coop on the left and peeked inside. Sure enough, a white hen they called Grumpy was sitting on a nest. Annie left her alone and turned back to her sister. “He was afraid his Pa would remarry.”

A wicked grin broke across her sister’s face.  “I think he doesn’t want our parents to marry because he wants to marry you someday.”

“For crying out loud, Sister, he’s too young to get married.”

Satisfied with the amount of eggs, Annie left the lean-to and headed toward the house. Katie followed.

“Gran said she knew at twelve she wanted to marry Poppy,” Katie said.

And Mama, Annie remembered, said she had been friends with Amon since they were children.

“That does not mean David wants to marry me, and I certainly do not want to marry him.” She stalked past her sister, wishing she could sling the basket of eggs right into her face.

“And I think,” Katie yelled after her, “that neither you nor Mama know what you want!”

The stage directions clearly show Annie with a task that is appropriate to the historical fiction genre of the book. She is busy, but still talking to Katie. The conversation flows and the stage directions do not disrupt the flow of the story. The hen named “Grumpy” mirrors Annie’s frustration and mood and her internal conflict over how she feels about David and her desire she would rather leave the matter alone.  Additionally, her  desire to “sling the basket of eggs” into her sister’s face shows the external conflict with her sister.

Again, for newbies, or aspiring authors, go back to your manuscript and take a look at all your dialogue scenes. Can you create more conflict by adding stage directions? Do you have too many? Can you twist them to mirror the external or internal conflicts of her characters?

For the rest of us, its back to the editing dragon once again.

 

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