Stage Directions in Fiction Writing: Where is the MC?

I read a piece submitted by a member of my writer’s group. In the opening scene, the point-of-view character looked over the shoulder of his wife, who was seated in the corner. Wait a minute, I thought. If she was seated in the corner, how could he look over her shoulder? Or, was he looking beyond her shoulder. My confusion took me right out of the story. And it was a strong piece.

In my own work-in-progress, I must have read the opening scene a half-dozen times before I discovered the main character at one point was standing in the kitchen, putting English muffins in a toaster. A moment later, she was seated at the kitchen table and I had not described how she got there.

Janice Hardy blogged about this topic here in February. She emphasized 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.”

Nat Russo, posting on the blog A Writer’s Journey, observed that stage direction can bog down the pace of the story. “Stage direction impacts your pacing directly be slowing it down wherever it appears.” Russo wrote.

“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 does not need to describe every movement in detail, but the writer must at a minimum let the reader in on where the character is situated in a scene. And why the writer made that choice. The level of detail depends on what the writer wants to accomplish in a scene. If a couple is about to have an argument, does the writer place them nose to nose or on the other side of the room.  It depends. If they cannot stand the sight of each other, perhaps they want to be as far away as possible.

Is movement important to the scene? In the opening scene of my novel, 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 hm and pleading with him not to go. The distance allowed me to heighten the tension. If he was at the front door and decided to walk out, the tension would have quickly dissipated.

Small details, such as a character fidgeting in his chair, can be revealing. Describing the chair in detail and where it was in the room could be distracting.

It all comes down to balance. Give the reader enough stage direction to allow her to visualize the scene, but not so much that it drags the scene down.

What is your take on stage direction? How much is too much?

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