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I Finally Understand What "Stage Directions" Means

When I was in college, one of my professors, Jennifer Cognard-Black, served as my mentor while I wrote a novel.  It was neither my first novel nor, I'm sure, her first mentorship, but it was a great experience because it gave me some much-needed one-on-one time to get good feedback on style and technique.

(Before I move on, how about a plug?  Stop by and buy one of her books if you're in the mood for some literary criticism.  She knows her stuff.)

If you're not into that, she also edited a cookbook.
The vast majority of her advice was really helpful and has stuck with me to this day, and I really appreciated her time and input, even if I didn't immediately show it.  But there was one thing she used to say that I didn't really get at the time.  She'd read through a chunk of pages I'd written and say, "This would work better if you reworked the stage directions."

That phrase always confounded me.  "Stage directions."  I understood it was a bad thing, but I couldn't quite grasp how.

I knew it had to do with the characters' actions.  The bits where I described what characters were doing between all the super clever dialogue I came up with for them.  I think at the time I was obsessed with the idea that characters needed to be doing things, so I couldn't understand why Jennifer would tell me to get rid of it.  So inside I'd be thinking, "Well, of course there's stage directions... otherwise there'd just be dialogue."

But now that I've been writing (and reading) more consistently for the last few years, I've had an epiphany.  "Stage directions."  As in, bland and uninteresting descriptions of movement.  Boring directions for people who don't feel like projecting their own interpretations of a character onto more meaningful actions and dialogue.  "Stage directions."  Yes!  I get it now!  Good one, Jennifer.

For example, here's an actual excerpt from the novel I was writing back then.  (I may actually go back and edit this in full some day.  It's not totally awful.)  I'd give you context, but honestly, there's no point today:

Oh, yes. It was indeed trouble. Norton stuck his head inside Eric's office. He was reading a magazine at his desk. "Eric? Reverend Daltrey is here. He says you invited him?"

"I did. Tell him to come in."

Norton turned around. The Reverend was standing perfectly straight with his arms at his sides. The assistants behind him folded their arms and frowned. Frowning appeared to be big with them. Perhaps it was a pastime in their hometowns. Probably they had annual frowning contests, and the winner got a year's supply of shitty cake.

"He says you can go inside," Norton said, pushing the door open.

As Daltrey took a seat, Eric pushed a button on one of the objects on his desk. "Sarah Quinn, please come to my office," he said. The announcement echoed in the hallways. Norton jumped at first. Then he noticed Eric's smile. "You like that? Had it installed over the weekend. You can run along, Nort. I'm sure you have important work to do."

I don't think this is necessarily awful, but it's certainly dry.  The problem is that many of these actions are either clumsily inserted in between the dialogue or they just don't really do anything to build character.  They're just what the characters are doing.  In other words, it might as well just be a little thing in brackets next to the dialogue.

Eric's reading a magazine.  Is that because he's slacking off at work?  Does it mean he's bored?  Does it mean he's not taking the Reverend seriously?  Does it mean he's not taking Norton seriously?  Who knows.  It might as well not be in the scene at all.

[Reading a magazine] "I did. Tell him to come in."

Worst of all is probably the last paragraph.  The joke - as much as it exists - is that Eric has frivolously spent some money to have an intercom switch installed in his desk, and he surprises Norton by using it.  But the action is boring and it isn't even sequenced the right way.  Norton actually sees Eric push a button, so it's not really that surprising that something happens afterward, is it?

With all that in mind, here's a quick rewrite knowing what I know now:

Oh, yes. Trouble.  Norton peeked inside Eric's office and braced himself for the blowback. "Eric? Reverend Daltrey is here. He says you invited him?"

"I did," Eric said, nose-deep in a magazine.  "Tell him to come in."  He didn't even bother to look up.


Norton turned back to the Reverend, a grim statue of foreboding, and his two assistants, flanking either side with frowns and folded arms. Frowning appeared to be big with them.  Maybe a pastime from their hometown.  So which was more troubling: the Reverend and his cronies, or the fact that Eric brought them here?

"He says you can go inside," Norton said, holding open the door.

They shuffled in and Daltrey took a seat.  Norton was about to slink away, his head clouded with panic, when he jumped at the sound of Eric's voice suddenly echoing through the halls.  "Sarah Quinn, please come to my office."

Norton glanced back and saw Eric leaning over his desk, a finger hovering over an intercom button and a smug grin on his face.  "You like that? Had it installed over the weekend." He leaned back in his seat and waved a hand. "You can run along, Nort. I'm sure you have important work to do."

It might not be perfect yet, but it feels so much better.  It's not that every action has to be fully fleshed out and described in excruciating detail, but the actions aren't just sitting there anymore.  They're actually part of the scene.  There's context for the things that are being done, and even the driest movements - Eric waving his hand - can be read with a more enriching connotation.  Eric's being a sleazy, condescending dickhead, and it shows a lot better.

I'd like to think that not all of my lessons will take ten years to learn.  I'm a little ashamed, but at last I can finally say: thank you, Jennifer.  That was some good advice.

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