How To Spot And Eliminate Stage Directing In Your Writing

When you’ve been writing long enough, you discover what you’re good at.

It might be snapping out witty dialogue, awesome plot outlining, or creating characters so beloved even someone with a black soul would shed a tear at their demise.

You also discover amongst these writing strengths, what your writing weaknesses are. For me, that nemesis is stage directing.

For those unaware, stage directing is when you can’t help but write every single move a character makes. This takes the form of describing everything they see in unnecessary detail and every physical move beyond what’s needed.

So how can you tell if you’re adding essential detail or too much stage directing? If you’re lucky, a beta reader will point it out. It might not feel like luck at the time, and it’ll definitely damage your writing heart (and ego) to hear it, but learning this harsh truth will make you grow as a writer.

If you don’t have a beta to break your writing heart, the following examples should give you an idea of what to look for.

How To Spot And Eliminate Stage Directing In Your Writing

The reason you don’t want stage direction to overrun your writing is because it…

  • Slows down the action.
  • Eliminates tension.
  • Doesn’t move the plot forward.
  • Reveals nothing about the character.

Carla pulled the note from her handbag and set it on the carpeted floor beside the large oak coffee table. She used her hands to brush the cookie crumbs from the surface and smoothed the note flat, right in the center where Jenny could see it.
“What’s that?” Jenny put down her plate of cookies.
“I found it slipped under my front door this morning.”
“Who do you think left it?”
Carla shifted on the couch and her pant leg got caught in something sticky. She glanced around at the empty coffee mugs and dirty plates surrounding them. “Someone who said they saw us.”
“That night?” Jenny’s eyes widened, and she reached for another cookie. “Do you believe them?” She shoved the cookie in her mouth, chewing on it as her fingers grasped the note, picking it up from the table and holding it in front of her face as her eyes swept the scrawled handwriting from left to right.
“I believe them,” Carla said. “They know too many details.”
Jenny dropped the note, letting it flutter back to the table and land amongst the cookie crumbs. “How do I know you didn’t write it?”
“I have just as much to lose if this gets out.” Carla looked at the center of the coffee table again.
“I doubt that.” Jenny snorted. She lifted her hand to her mouth and wiped at the cookie crumbs on her lips.
“I was there too!” Carla snatched up the note, picking up her purse and shoving the note back inside.
“But you didn’t pull the trigger.”

Are you still with me or asleep? Did you catch all the staging? The movements that weren’t necessary? The spelled-out actions that slowed the pace? Let’s try it again minus all of that.

Carla brushed the cookie crumbs from the coffee table, smoothing the note flat in the center.
“What’s that?” Jenny lowered her plate of cookies.
“I found it slipped under my front door this morning.”
“Who do you think left it?”
Carla shifted on the couch, her pant leg clinging to something sticky. Would it kill Jenny to wipe things down? “Someone who said they saw us.”
“That night?” Jenny’s eyes widened. “Do you believe them?” She shoved a cookie in her mouth, her gaze scanning the scrawled handwriting.
“I believe them,” Carla said. “They know too many details.”
“How do I know you didn’t write it?”
“I have just as much to lose if this gets out.”
“I doubt that.” Jenny snorted, wiping at the cookie crumbs on her lips.
“I was there too!” Carla snatched the note, shoving it inside her purse.
“But you didn’t pull the trigger.”

By removing the staging, the passage flows faster, automatically ups the tension, and moves the plot forward. Without the staging weight, we can also add internal thoughts, doing a better job of revealing that Carla thinks Jenny’s house is messy.

Another staging red flag is describing a room in such a way your reader might wonder if your day job is to sell furniture.

The hotel room was small and neat, with a single bed covered in a thick quilt taking up most of the space. Jack glanced around at its bare beige walls before flopping on the end of the bed and staring up at the rusted ceiling fan above him.

This might give the reader an idea of the room, but it doesn’t tell them anything about Jack. Here it is with the staging rewritten.

Jack flopped onto the end of the bed, throwing his bag down. It bumped against the beige wall, leaving a scuff mark that gave it some color. He stretched back onto the quilt, his calloused hands finding warmth and comfort in its thickness. The ceiling fan above him was the messiest feature of the room, bent at an odd angle and dotted with rust. I won’t be switching you on. It would be just his luck for it to come loose and crush him in his sleep.

Now it still comes across that the hotel room is small and neat, with a single bed, boring walls, and a rusted ceiling fan, but we also learn about Jack. He’s a physical worker, down on his luck, with calloused hands, looking for warmth and comfort. By rewriting the staging and having him interact with what’s around him instead of just stating it, the reader learns about the character and is painted a picture of the scene instead of reading a list of hotel furniture.

Does this mean you should never describe furniture or give the reader an idea of where a character is standing in a scene? Of course not. As with all writing tricks, you need to learn how to balance the staging.

If you’re unsure what staging to keep or cut, ask yourself if the action/direction is needed or if you’re just stating what the reader can work out for themselves. Have some trust in them to “get” that a character crosses from one side of the room to another without wasting words and spelling it out. Your readers should appreciate it and your writing will be better for it, without too much damage to your writing heart.

— K.M. Allan

You can find me stage directing my writing life on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

38 thoughts on “How To Spot And Eliminate Stage Directing In Your Writing

Add yours

  1. That’s why the whole fantasy world-building thing is so difficult. When to stop the staging!? With realism, I can just say, “it was a nice hotel room” and everybody knows what that looks like and can then move on to the characters or to. I do think writers who pay a lot of attn to staging might be good screenwriters!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. By that logic, I’d be an excellent screen writer 😅. Totally agree that writing fantasy would really double the staging and that’s where you need to get a bit more crafty and interactive with the staging descriptions. Thanks, as always, for reading, Rebecca 😊.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, love this post! I’ve never read a post about staging before so this was super helpful. I feel like I have a hard time striking a balance because I don’t want my characters to become talking heads but some movements just seem insignificant so I don’t mention them … and then suddenly my characters become statues instead lol. This was so helpful! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Madeline 😊. I find it hard too. I just naturally write a lot of staging in my first few drafts and it’s hard to then cut it. I’m trying to get better at it though.

      Like

  3. Ya. There’s a surprising beauty in spareness, I too forget it from time to time. Also, I notice that I start stage directing when I have no bloody clue as to what I should be writing, which makes it kind of literary waffling for me. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I’m guilty of going into total stage directing mode in the first few drafts because I usually don’t know what I’m doing or where the story is going. I’ve really got to learn to edit most of it out in my other drafts. Thanks for reading 😊.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. One of my first attempts was a ten page sleep fest of a man walking to the front of his house. At the time all of the stage directions made perfect sense.

    Who wouldn’t want to experience all the little pebbles he kicked along the way or smiled and waved at the six or eight birds described in vivid detail.

    Yes, it was atrocious

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think some of this stage directing comes from the old “show, don’t tell” thing. Writers equate detailed description of actions with showing. And all those details worked into the dialogue scene may come from the “rule” to avoid “talking heads.” As with so many aspects of writing, it’s a matter of balance and knowing when to stop. As you say, beta readers can be invaluable in spotting this stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Audrey! I didn’t think of it like that but you’re totally right. There’s so many contradicting rules and trying to avoid one may have you slipping into another. That’s something that has totally overwhelmed me in the past.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. As a clueless amateur, this helped me a lot because I don’t like describing actions and if I’m g to start, I now know what to avoid “Another staging red flag is describing a room in such a way your reader might wonder if your day job is to sell furniture.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never thought about this specific case. Most of the time, if they are just snippets of sentences, I’d just consider it part of the “fluff” to cut. Maybe even if they are a whole paragraph, I’d still call it a “fluff” without trying to find a specific name for this specific case. It’s good to hear about it, though, because it helps me understand why I cut something more than a mix of intuition and attempts to make the writing flow better.

    In my specific case, I believe there are two places with a detailed description: the MC’s home (which is shown several times and there are some details to show more about him) and the Shrine of Eternals as a place of mystical/mythological value for the world of my story (and the first time the MC goes there is his initiation so he is overwhelmed by all he sees).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I often advise inexperienced writers to “put your characters ‘on-stage’ and have them act out the scene by using snappy and effective dialogue, the five senses (not all five, necessarily, but some), character action (do not overdo!), etc. EVERYTHING should work toward advancing the plot, creating tension, and revealing aspects of the characters. No “idle chatter” or overuse of the above. You don’t need all the crumbs, just a few effective ones. The others should be swept up and trashed.
    I suppose my idea of “on-stage and act out” vs. “stage direction” boils down to semantics. Good post! 🙂

    –Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I can struggle here sometimes. One thing that really helped me with this was Paul Greengrass’ direction of the Bourne movies. The way the films are cut eliminates all the “in between moments” just shows what the audience NEEDS to see. Great post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love this advice. It’s so easy when you’re writing early drafts to picture the scene and describe every tiny movement. But less is more, and it certainly stops readers from skimming if everything is concise and interesting. Brilliant reminder! I’m going to be searching for these on my next edit xx

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I love, love, love this post.
    I’ve never heard of the term ‘stage directing’ before, but I can totally identify with it.
    I became aware of it when writing in 1st POV, being so close to the character made me want to over described everything they did in each scene.
    I wish I read this post months ago.
    Thank you. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rainy. The first I’d heard of stage directing was when a professional beta reader pointed out I did a lot of it when assessing an early draft of my MS. I was devastated at the time, especially as I do it so naturally when writing. It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m working on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for this. I didn’t know if it was just me who tended to refer to some early drafts (mine or critique partners’) as being at a “stage directions” stage (usually including info-dumpy, head-hoppy telliness etc), but I’m glad I’m not the only one. Hopefully it does have a minor function of reducing scene logic issues (such as picking up the same item twice), and it’s not too difficult to streamline later.

    Liked by 1 person

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