Writing Good Stories
The Novelization Process
Rethinking and Revising Imagery
Revising the Horror of Stage Directions
and Violating POV
vs. Illogic - Hanging the Lanterns
How to End a Novel
Sound and Sense - Shelley vs Dickens
Leaves in the Wind - Essays on the Interet Experience
the Horror of Stage Directions
Revising your novel's
draft can be stressful enough - attention to minutia - balancing your
global struction. However, nothing spells ruination more than entering
a scene and tripping over the furniture. As writers, when we settle into
the zone and get on a roll, we tend to visualize things in progression.
A character moves from point A to point B. Simple enough. However, we
over-manage the maneuver by having that character stand, raise his left
hand, scratch his ass, take three steps to the right, hop-scotch over
the coffee table, crack his knuckles, and then dust the table with a big
feather poised in his right hand. An over-statement, or course, but we
somehow feel that our characters need to act through a logical chain of
actions. So, the y stand and throw - walk and sing - crouch and warble.
This creates multiple focal points, which is an oxymoron, because you
can only have one focal point. When a character stands and throws, we
must assume that the throwing needs the standing and that our reader is
not so stupid to be told that the character is standing. By introducing
the ancillary action, the throwing ceases to be the focal point, and the
active becomes passive. This does not mean we cannot have two actions,
but they must be crafted sequentially, using the comma-and-then construction,
crating a progression:
Thomas stood, and then threw the stone like Paris tossing the golden apple.
Pruning these stage directions helps tighten your sentence sculpture,
creating a paragraph landscape. I call it a parascape. We don't write
sentence. We craft them; sculpt, if you like. . Never write a sentence
that sags, even if you need to resort to a single-word fragment. Therefore:
Morton stood, reached up and twisted the light bulb - should be
Morton reached up and twisted the light bulb - better sculpted as
Morton twisted the overhead light bulb.
Applying the playwright's craft in the novelist's domain forces us to
set the furniture. It's just the way we tend to think when we write. A
room's contents may or may not be critical to the story. If it sets the
atmosphere or helps the characters to assume a specific mood, please,
set the furniture, by all means, but not like this:
The room was wide and had two chairs, a cabinet and a table. The table
had a full service setting for five stacked on a lace tablecloth. The
dark wood was polished and the floor was parquet with inlayed tiles.
I have encountered such set design instructions in plays, and unfortunately,
in novels also. If there is an important piece amongst the stage set,
i.e. the butter knife that gets plunged into the baron's wicked heart;
or the salad cruet that harbors the arsenic (forget the old lace), surely
mention these. However, to set the stage, think more in terms of tightness
and tone. The above sprawl could be re-written thus:
Baron de Guise kept an unusual dining room. It had the typical complement
of chairs and tables, but set with China from a Romanian kiln - one that
specialized in dark, mottled sheen and the crimson De Guise crest. Spread
about a dark leather runner, these plates winked in the dim sunlight that
streamed across the mealscape beneath a ballet of late afternoon motes.
Drapes shut. Light shunned. The Baron's footsteps apparent now across
the Romany floor as he awaited his guests to trespass across his threshold.
Of course, I'm making the above up on the fly, but notice that the room
should reflect the character and the ultimate action. We know more about
this room than we do about the first room, because each reader will imagine
a different place with a similar tone, much more in keeping with their
own experience. Moreover, when do we set a stage without lighting? I could
add some aromas as well, but here, the absence of aroma helps foster a
Another tip on stage directions pertains to redundant kinetics. Some actions
are married to colloquialisms. Writers, particularly amateur writers,
plop them square into their narratives, overlooking them even in revision.
Here are a few examples:
He kicked the door with his foot - should be
He kicked the door. (Unless there's a focus on a silver spurred cowboy
She clapped her hands - should be
I shrugged my shoulders - should be
You get the idea. Test these redundancies by asking the question Is there
any other way to perform this act other than with the available anatomy.
Of course, in dialogue (that is colloquial) be sure to have such redundancies
- they flavor the stew.
If you overlook these things, will your novel fail? No. However, Acquisition
Editors look for such things as an excuse to close your manuscript and
go to lunch, branding it amateurish (your manuscript, not the lunch; although
you never know). We should never give them an excuse to flip us back into
the slush pile.
The other issue with stage directions are the props themselves. This is
a matter of how we visualize people and things. It has been my experience
that by describing things and people in detail, we rob the reader of the
opportunity of partnering with us. Novels are suppose to begin with us,
but never end with us. If we want a reader to buy a set of steak knives
on eBay, we take a photo, and then describe every blasted tooth in the
serration. However, if the steak knife is needed to kill the Baron De
Guise, we can describe its relative place on the table and its apparant
sharpness. If its just going to be used to cut steak, it probably shouldn't
be described at all. We must assume that our reader knows that steak is
cut with a steak knife. The phrase they ate steak should surfice as a
stage direction, unless they suddenly toss the A-1 away, plow their faces
into the plates and attack the steak doggie-style, which would indeed
be worthy of detailed description. Still, the point is clear. Only dwell
on objects of importance and let the reader set the stage in the comfort
of their imagination, where our words must trickle down, reaching the
heart and, if we succeed, the soul.