The Stage Direction Checklist

We all have a writing habit that no matter how much we grow as a writer, sticks with us.

For many writers (myself included), stage directing is one of those habits, and it takes the form of describing every physical move a character makes, beyond what’s necessary.

Because this habit happens naturally, it’s usually hard to break and hard to spot. That is where this checklist comes in. It will help you flag the words that indicate stage directing so you can weed it out.

The Stage Direction Checklist

The Rules:

Look at each instance and see if you can eliminate, rewrite or swap the word out for an action beat.

Keep in mind that not every instance has to be deleted/changed. Use your judgment.

  • Entered
  • Exited
  • Glance/Glancing/Glanced
  • Grab/Grabbing/Grabbed
  • Lifted
  • Look/Looked/Looking
  • Pull/Pulling/Pulled
  • Pushing/Push/Pushed
  • Reach/Reaching/Reached
  • Tipped
  • Turn/Turning/Turned
  • Walking/Walk/Walked

If you’re seeing these words in your sentences, chances are you’re stage directing.

The reason you want to keep stage direction to a minimum is to keep the action going, up the tension, move the plot forward, and to use your words to reveal things about your character, not waste them describing how they crossed from one side of the room to the other.

Let’s look at some stage direction with our trusty Example Characters, Jenny and Carla, who we’ve learned in other blog post examples were stalked by a serial killer, shot someone, and received a threatening note about it.

All the stage direction words are in bold.

Jenny entered the room by reaching for the heavy door and pushing on its handle. She glanced at the faces, looking for Carla. When she saw her, she walked to the table and stood alongside it.
“Thought you could hide from me, huh?”
Carla turned. “Jenny, what are you doing here?”
Jenny lifted her purse, pulling her phone out and waving it in Carla’s face. “You went there. I have pictures!”
“What? Are you stalking me now?” Carla rolled her eyes.
“Don’t lie about it!” Jenny waved the phone around, shoving it back in Carla’s face.
Carla grabbed for it, but Jenny held it back. “You promised you wouldn’t go to the police.”

Now, without the stage directing.

Jenny bustled into the room, scanning the faces for Carla. There she is. “Thought you could hide from me, huh?”
Carla stared at her from the other side of the table. “Jenny, what are you doing here?”
Jenny fished her phone from her purse, waving it in Carla’s face. “You went there. I have pictures!”
“What? Are you stalking me now?” Carla rolled her eyes.
“Don’t lie about it!”
Carla grabbed for the phone, but Jenny held it back. “You promised you wouldn’t go to the police.”

By cutting out most of the stage directing words, the scene is now tighter and faster-paced, which suits the feel.

The idea that Jenny has come into a crowded room looking for Carla and finds her at a table still comes across, but it doesn’t take as long to get to that conclusion.

It’s also still obvious that Jenny takes her phone out of her purse, you just don’t get a step-by-step account anymore. Removing the staging words around the dialogue also makes it snappier, and “grabbed” is kept because it works.

Eliminating the staging has made for a quicker, more interesting read, and the swaps are easy to achieve, once you know what words to flag and check.

Use this knowledge and this checklist to scour through your own sentences and see if you can cut the stage directing habit once and for all.

Good luck!

— K.M. Allan

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28 thoughts on “The Stage Direction Checklist

  1. I find watching movies can be very helpful for getting our of the habit of stage direction. They’ll show a person pulling up in a car, and then entering the building, not them parking the car, taking the keys out and opening the door. It’s really nice to have a visual of how scenes should flow. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You just described my first draft. 🙂

    When writing the first draft I toss in all the stage direction I can just to get it out of my system. I know it’s in there dying to get out and once it’s out it stays out.

    Thanks for doing this. Good to see I’m not the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

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