Sunday 19 June 2022

Writing tips: Stage Directions

Q When writing fiction, how do you move your characters around?
A In the fewest possible words.

Mabel had risen to her feet, she was walking across the room to join the others grouped around the fireplace. 

(Substitute "Mabel joined the others etc", unless there's something significant about the way she walked. Or she could "cross the room" instead of "walking across the room". Or even "Blah blah," said Mabel, who had quietly joined the group round the fireplace. Or did she muscle in? Or hang around the fringes?)

"Line of dialogue." Fred turned to discover that the man speaking was the first person he'd met the day he started the job. (Go straight to: "The man speaking was..." Or even: "It was X – the first person...")

There’s no need to plot your characters’ every footstep. It too easily becomes: “He rose from his chair, turned and walked over to the door, put his hand on the doorknob, twisted it, opened the door and went out, closing it behind him.” Substitute “He went out” unless you want to say something like: I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat. (Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith. More about the diary here.)

It has been used by many good writers, but it's best to avoid this cliché: He opened his mouth to speak – but thought better of it. 

This formula can become repetitious: "Blah blah blah," he said adverbly, while performing a physical action.

Characters may be moving while speaking, but there's no need to explain it every time, like this: Rising out of his chair, he said: "Blah blah blah."

Foreigners don't need to “gesture” or "gesticulate" constantly – they can wave and point like everybody else. Don't make them perform complicated dumb shows instead of speaking. Italians wave their hands to accompany their words. Yes, they have a repertoire of stereotyped gestures like the chef's kiss or rude forms of "get lost", but they don't use them all the time.

Avoid trying to describe arm movements exactly – the result will probably be baffling rather than expressive. Save it for characters with affected mannerisms. "She flapped her hand in exasperation", or "He flung up his hands in despair" will do. ("She had about the most meaningless set of gestures I had ever laid eyes on." Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister)

Kingsley Amis describes a woman frowning, smiling, blinking, lip-pursing etc and then adds, disparagingly, "What a lot of facial expressions she knew!"

Do people in real life really do the following?

She tilted her head interrogatively. His face twisted.
He wagged a finger. She spoke through gritted teeth.
He shook a fist. She shook her head in disbelief.
He gestured for her to continue. She rubbed her hands in glee.
She shrugged. He scratched his head in puzzlement.
She pursed her lips. He drew himself up to his full height.
She darted him a quizzical look. He raised a skeptical eyebrow.
She wrung her hands. He smacked his lips.
She patted his cheek. He cocked his head.
She put her finger to her lips. He put the tips of his fingers together.
He bit his lip. She turned on her heel. 

Perhaps humans do act like this in real life, but the above stage directions make me think of actors in soap opera:

She stared at him wide-eyed and open-mouthed, shaking her head speechlessly.
She sashayed towards him, smiling with half-closed eyes and wagging her head.
"You love it, don't you?" she said, jerking her chin.
He gazed at her unblinkingly until the director said "Cut!". 

Or the novels of Georgette Heyer and her imitators:

The handsome young face clouded over. My lord shook his head.
Warburton ignored the bantering tone and spoke very deliberately.
Carstares shot an alert, suspicious glance at him.
My lord studied his emerald with half-closed eyelids.
Carstares, leaning against a tree, surveyed the youthful rake amusedly.

With clenched teeth he recalled the days when he, the son of an Earl, had taught fencing in Paris for a living... Suddenly he laughed harshly.

In a Twitter debate about adverbs (writer Stephen King says we should drop them all), I suggested you could write "she said bossily". "What does that mean?" someone asked. "With her hands on her hips, wagging her finger, pursing her lips?" I intended the "bossily" to refer to her intention, and her tone of voice. There is no need to include gestures straight out of The Art of Coarse Acting.

Beverley Nichols finds it necessary to describe every wave of the hand, every coquettish scowl. (Amazon review of Crazy Pavements)

Aspiring fiction-writers
 are often advised: "Show, don’t tell". This means you shouldn't tell the reader what your characters are feeling – show them instead. But you may end up with a cast who spend all their time frowning, sighing, clenching their fists and slamming doors in a melodramatic pantomime.

Watch out that the approach doesn’t become show and tell: She gasped in shock, he trembled with fear, she sat there frowning but then sprang to her feet, finally understanding the situation

Avoid having one character notice others' emotions: He looked round the room, and saw puzzled frowns and vacant stares. (Avoid having someone watch another character do something, too – just have them do the thing.)

When talking to each other in real life, people smile for all kinds of reasons – there’s no need to mark each grin, beam, smirk, twinkle. "Rueful" and "wry" smiles are a cliché. Perhaps note the smile when it's unexpected:

"The people reverence thee," said Hester. "And surely thou workest good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?"

"More misery, Hester! – Only the more misery!" answered the clergyman with a bitter smile.
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. Earlier, Hester smiles "drearily".) 

She stared at him as if she had never seen him before. Then she turned scarlet. Then she turned as white as a sheet. Then she gave a little laugh. It was most interesting to watch. Made me wish I was up a tree about eight hundred miles away. (P.G. Wodehouse)

But some writers avoid clichéd actions – perhaps they actually observed people in real life. Here are three from hard-boiled mystery writer Ross McDonald.

He wagged his head gloomily. 
He closed his hand around my arm.
The woman gave me a long look, and then her hand.

George Orwell wished that more working-class people would write about their lives. He met a man who had written his life story, but it was in the language of Peg’s PaperWith a wild cry she sank in a stricken heap... 

Do your characters shrug, nod their head, look at something then look back, arch an eyebrow, and then clear their throat? Stop it. (@cterlson)

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