Sunday, 19 June 2022

Rookie Mistakes: 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.)

"Line of dialogue." Fred turned to discover that the man speaking was the first person he'd met the day he started the job. (Cut "Fred turned to discover that...")

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” 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.

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 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. He mopped his brow.

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.
"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.

And so on...

More here, and links to the rest.
A Short Guide to Writing Well


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