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Stage Directions in Fiction: Where is the MC?

cgblake [1]CG Blake [2] is a writer with thirty years of writing and editing experience. He published his first novel, Small Change [3], in 2012, and his second novel, A Prayer for Maura, is due out in January of 2016. His interest in family dynamics has led CG to choose family sagas as his main genre. Among his favorite authors are Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott, Alice Munro, Michael Chabon, and Richard Ford. CG lives outside of Hartford, Connecticut. A former newspaper reporter, he is employed as an association management executive in the higher education sector.

As a writer, I’ve noted the similarities between fiction writing and the performing arts. I remember my Speech & Drama teacher in high school taught us how to block scenes on the stage and the physical placement of actors during a scene. These lessons apply to how we set up scenes in a novel.

Connect with CG on Twitter [4] and on his blog [2].

Stage Directions in Fiction: Where is the MC?

You’re reading a novel and a character appears out of nowhere and joins a conversation. Or, a character sitting in the living room in the scene is suddenly standing by the door. Have you ever felt disoriented by characters who jump on or off the page with no reference to how they got there? Has a beta reader or an editor ever flagged you on the mysterious movements of characters in your scenes?

[pullquote]A member of my writer’s group submitted a piece in which the point-of-view character looked over the shoulder of his wife, who was seated in the corner of a room with a wall behind her. He was looking at something, but the only thing behind his wife was the wall. What was he looking at? I was confused. [/pullquote]

A member of my writer’s group submitted a piece in which the point-of-view character looked over the shoulder of his wife, who was seated in the corner of a room with a wall behind her. He was looking at something, but the only thing behind his wife was the wall. What was he looking at? I was confused. The reference to the character looking over his wife’s shoulder at a wall took me right out of the story.

In my own work-in-progress, I must have read the opening scene a dozen times before I discovered the main character at one point was standing in the kitchen of her family home, putting an English muffin in the toaster. Seconds later, she was seated at the kitchen table, and I had not described how she had gotten there.

What we’re talking about here is an often overlooked aspect of fiction writing—stage direction. I recall the fundamentals of stage direction from the Speech & Drama class I took in high school. There were nine squares on a grid: stage right/stage left/stage center; up stage/center stage/down stage, right/center/left. We learned about blocking—the physical movement and staging of actors on a stage. Each scene is blocked. The physical placement of the actors in a play is a crucial dramatic element. And yet, in fiction writing, little attention is paid to it.

51+dgSg1EtL._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_ [3]In a blog post [5], Janice Hardy stressed the importance of balance in stage direction. “As with everything else in writing, good stage direction requires balance and subtlety with the rest of the text. Too much and it feels like the scene drags, describing every little move a character makes. Too little and it feels like something was missed.”

Stage direction serves as a device to manage the pacing of a story, as blogger Nat Russo points out. “Stage direction impacts your pacing by slowing it down wherever it appears,” Russo wrote on his blog, A Writer’s Journey.

“Managing your stage direction well can be crucial to pacing and overall readability. Too many stage directions and you’ll drain the lifeblood of your story (the drama and tension), too few and you leave the reader navigating without a compass and any idea of where True North is,” Russo wrote.

My take on stage direction is that the writer need not describe every physical movement of a character in detail, but at a minimum, a writer must let the reader know where a character is situated in a scene. The level of detail depends on what the writer wants to accomplish in a scene. If a couple is engaged in a heated argument, does the writer place them nose-to-nose or at opposite ends of the room? It depends on what the writer wants to achieve. If they can’t stand the sight of each other, maybe opposite ends of the room works. If they are still close and want to salvage the relationship, face-to-face might be better.

Movement is another key aspect of stage direction. In the opening scene of my work-in-progress, the main character’s father storms out of the house. This means he has to walk through the kitchen, the dining room, and the parlor, with his daughter walking behind him, pleading with him not to go. The distance they had to walk allowed me to heighten the tension. If he had been placed at the front door, the tension would have quickly dissipated.

Selecting the right details matters. Small details, such as a character fidgeting in his chair, can be revealing. Describing the chair in detail and its location in the room is distracting.

Here are some tips on stage direction:

Strive for clarity. The reader must know where the characters are in a scene and in relation to one another. If a character enters or leaves a room, the writer must make that clear.

Use stage direction to drive pacing. An extended action scene should be followed by a quiet scene, which allows the reader to catch his breath and process what has just happened.

Physical distance between characters can reveal relationships. Where the writer chooses to have a character stand can show intimacy or estrangement. It can signal a character’s traits. A shy person who is attracted to someone might be afraid to stand too close and may cast his eyes downward.

Action scenes require the writer to take into account movement, physical barriers, terrain, and the relative fitness of characters in pursuit of one another. This is a whole topic in itself, but a chase scene must be carefully thought out in advance, taking into account a number of variables.

What’s your take on stage directions? How much is too much, or too little?