I recently read Mark Twain’s essay “William Dean Howell” and was intrigued by what he calls stage directions.
Often, we think of stage directions in terms of plays, not referencing fiction, but as I continued reading I found his advice to be just what we need to take our writing to the next level.
According to Mark Twain, stage directions are “...those artifices which authors employ to throw a kind of human naturalness around a scene and a conversation, and help the reader to see the one and get at meanings in the other which might not be perceived if entrusted unexplained to the bare words of the talk.”
He goes on to say, “Some authors overdo the stage directions, they elaborate them quite beyond necessity; they spend so much time and take up so much room in telling us how a person said a thing and how he looked and acted when he said it that we get tired and vexed and wish he hadn't said it all.”
In short, stage directions are intended to enhance a scene or dialogue and deepen characterization but should never be a distraction.
Twain lists a few examples of poorly done stage directions following dialogue. Note his analysis in parentheses.
". . . replied Alfred, flipping the ash from his cigar."
(This explains nothing; it only wastes space.)
". . . responded Richard, with a laugh." (There was nothing
to laugh about; there never is. The writer puts it in from
habit--automatically; he is paying no attention to hiswork; or
he would see that there is nothing to laugh at; often, when a
remark is unusually and poignantly flat and silly, he tries to
deceive the reader by enlarging the stage direction and making
Richardbreak into "frenzies of uncontrollable laughter." This
makes the reader sad.)
". . . murmured Gladys, blushing." (This poor old shop-worn
blush is a tiresome thing. We get so we would rather Gladys
would fall out of the book and break her neck than do it again.
She is always doing it, and usually irrelevantly. Whenever it is
her turn to murmur she hangs out her blush; it is the only thing
she's got. In a littlewhile we hate her, just as we do
". . . repeated Evelyn, bursting into tears." (This kind
keep a book damp all the time. They can't say a thing without
crying. They cry so much about nothing that by and by when they
have something to cry ABOUT they have gone dry; they sob, and
fetch nothing; we are not moved. We are only glad.)
A few points I took away from each example include:
1. The stage direction must move the story, character, or scene forward. If it doesn’t do the job, cut it. Chances are it’s not necessary and only wastes space.
2. Dialogue, if done well, can relay a mood or atmosphere without “...making Richard break into ‘frenzies of uncontrollable laughter.’” Stage directions risk being over used when the dialogue itself is flat or ineffective. One way to avoid this is to analyze your dialogue. Could it be said in a way that better conveys mood, character, or atmosphere?
3. Avoid repetitive character actions. If a character blushes with every phrase she says, we’ll eventually get tired of reading it, skimming over the words or even throwing the book across the room.
4. Avoid repeating the same overworked, stale stage directions throughout your manuscript. If Evelyn blushes, then Grace murmurs with a blush, and Frank blushed in embarrassment, it will get monotonous and the reader will quickly lose interest.
But Twain isn’t against action tags or stage directions and goes on to point out that Howell’s stage directions are so effective that even dialogue is unnecessary at times.
Twain says of Howells’ writing, “Sometimes they [stage directions] convey a scene and its conditions so well that I believe I could see the scene and get the spirit and meaning of the accompanying dialogue if someone would read merely the stage directions to me and leave out the talk. For instance, a scene like this, from THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY:
". . . and she laid her arms with a beseeching gesture on
her father's shoulder."
". . . she answered, following his gesture with a glance."
". . . she said, laughing nervously."
". . . she asked, turning swiftly upon him that strange, searching glance."
". . . she answered, vaguely."
". . . she reluctantly admitted."
". . . but her voice died wearily away, and she stood looking
into his face with puzzled entreaty."
“Mr. Howells does not repeat his forms, and does not need to;
he can invent fresh ones without limit.”
The point is that Twain was tired of overused phrases, and while one or two repetitive deliveries is acceptable, the repetition of the same ones over and over again becomes wearisome.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN:
This week, find passages of dialogue in your WIP and evaluate your stage directions, asking the following questions of each:
1. Does it move the story, character, or scene forward?
2. Is the dialogue strong enough without it?
3. Does it slow the pace?
4. How many times have you used the phrase?
What are some stage directions you’ve noticed that distract rather than enhance your writing? Share in the comments below.