Avoiding Stage Directions
What they are, why they are bad, and how to fix them
In a play, stage directions are the non-dialog actions the actor must perform. These can be used to mark entrances and exits, or they can be pantomimes of actions or emotions used to set up dialogue. Here is an example from the opening of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:
Reverend Parris is praying now, and though we cannot hear his words, a sense of confusion hangs about him. He mumbles, then seems about to weep; then he weeps, then prays again, but his daughter does not stir on the bed.
While this is appropriate for a play, long passages with multiple actions strung together don’t work in novel writing.
“Julie, what have you done?” I shout at my sister. I race to the table and pick the figurines up, examining each one. I start setting them in their proper places, nudging them back into their exact spots, making sure they are exactly perfect. “I told you not to play with these.”
In novels, “stage directions” are sections where the author begins listing a character’s visible actions without giving the thoughts or feelings associated with them. These actions lose their significance because the reader is never told why they are important. As a result, the reader is bombarded with useless information, unable to discern which actions are meaningful.
In novels, anything reported to the reader must be significant. For this reason, listing all of a character’s actions (including insignificant actions) actually creates distance. The reader never gets to see the character’s thoughts and feeling and is, therefore, left outside. A character’s thoughts and feelings are half your story, don’t forget them.
Consider the previous example with the internal dialogue replaced:
“Julie, what have done?” I shout at my sister.
No, no, no, no. I race to the table and pick up the figurines, examining each one. This is so bad.
They aren’t broken, thank God, but he’s gonna know she touched them. He’s gonna know we were in here.
I start setting them in their proper places, nudging them back into their exact spots, making sure they are exactly perfect. Please, please, please, don’t let him notice. Please, God, please.
“I told you not to play with these.”
Internal thoughts can completely change the story.
How to fix stage directions
Once you have located a section of stage directions, isolate it. Take each action and create a complete MRU. (Motivation-Reaction Unit)
Since action is part of the “reaction” portion of the MRU, you will have to work backward and find the cause. (motivation)
(Input) Motivation- what caused the action? Sensory input: see, hear, smell, etc. Can also be a sixth sense or an internal motivation
- Feeling: involuntary (visceral responses: heart race, stomach drop, etc.) (show emotions)
- Thoughts: internal dialogue
- Physical Actions
If you cannot create an MRU for each action, then you don’t need them all. Pick the most important, and let the reader assume the rest.
Input- The sun glinted off the ring (vision)
- (Thought) His ring, the lying, cheating jerk
- (action) I threw back my covers, got up from my bed and stormed across my room. Then, I grabbed the ring and flung it across my room.
There are too many actions. Most can be assumed by the reader.
In the first sentence, we only need “stormed across the room.” In this passage, the reader already knew the character was in bed (this was before the excerpt) So if she stormed across the room, she couldn’t have done that unless she also threw back the covers and got out of bed. In the second sentence, we only need “flung it across the room.” We can assume she picked it up. (Now, if she used mental telepathy to will it into her hand, that would be significant.)
First Revision- (Action) I stormed across the room and flung the ring across the room (Uh oh, echo)
Final Version- (action) I stormed across the room and threw his stupid ring as hard as I could.
Input: It pinged against the wall, then, vanished into a pile of old junk.
Output: (Thought) If only getting rid of him could be that easy.
Input: A beautiful image popped into my head.
Output: (thought) Maybe it can be.
In the final version, each MRU is complete and only the most meaningful actions are given. This will help build trust with your readers because everything in the book is important. Readers will appreciate that you are not wasting their time or insulting their intelligence. Letting readers make assumptions is a sneaky way of engaging their interest.
Don’t write stage directions in your novel. Give readers only the details they really want to know.
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