Articles on Writing:
Writing Good Stories
The Novelization Process
Approaching Revisions
Rethinking and Revising Imagery

Revising the Horror of Stage Directions
Maintaining and Violating POV
Logic vs. Illogic - Hanging the Lanterns

How to End a Novel

Sound and Sense - Shelley vs Dickens

New Leaves in the Wind - Essays on the Interet Experience

Revising 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 sterile tone.

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 boot).

She clapped her hands - should be
She clapped.

I shrugged my shoulders - should be
I shrugged.

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.

Edward C. Patterson