If you’ve ever been in a play, or even read one, then you know stage directions are included in parentheses to tell the actors where to go and what to do while onstage.
Stage directions are also important when telling a story. Readers need to know where characters are located in a scene as well as what the characters are doing.
But too many stage directions will bore a reader into skimming.
How do you find a good balance?
1. Keep it clear.
If a scene begins in the main character’s house and ends in the empty lot down the street, make sure you’ve written how (walking, driving, teleporting) and why the main character changed locations. Clarity is especially important in a busy scene, such as when characters are fighting or on the run. Every movement counts.
2. Skip the obvious.
If a character is engaged in a mundane activity, you don’t need to include a play-by-play. Trust your reader to make inferences. We all know how to brush our teeth, so no need to describe the tooth brushing. Unless the painstaking way your character applies toothpaste to the bristles and then scrubs each tooth individually for thirty seconds will give the readers clues about this character’s personality or quirks.
3. Let stage directions impact your pacing.
Stage directions are a wonderful pacing tool. You can speed up a scene by keeping stage directions to a minimum, or draw out an uncomfortable moment between two characters by including more stage directions. Example:
“Mom, will you answer me? Can I borrow your car?”
Clink. Emily placed another plate in the drying rack. Then she bent over and gave it a close inspection. She picked the plate up and held it to the light. She sighed and dipped the plate back into the sudsy water.
“Mom? Why won’t you answer me?”
4. Let readers into the nuances of your character’s thoughts and feelings.
As I mentioned in #2, how a character performs mundane activities can give the readers glimpses into their inner lives. And physical distance, or lack thereof, between characters can point to interesting things about relationships. Use stage directions to alert readers to character motivations.
Photo by Barry Weatherall on Unsplash