Thinking about stage directions is a dangerous habit. Once you have them on your brain, you can't read fiction without noticing an annoying abundance of pacing, sighing, looking, gazing, pausing, frowning, turning, glancing, lip biting, and (one of my favorites) hard swallowing. And that's not even mentioning the racing hearts and the sweaty palms and the clenching teeth.

Stage directions are those little bits of physical action interspersed in dialog. You need them. For purposes of this lesson, I'm grouping similar sorts of mid-dialog description into the same category. Far too often, writers' stage directions are cliche crap. Let's look at a series of dialogs with a variety of levels and types of stage directions and figure out the problem.

"We have to kill Lester."
"I know," Bob said.
"It won't be easy, you know."
"We can do it."

This is spare and economical. Certain sections of your dialog should look like this because SD-free dialog moves along at a nice clip. But if this goes on too long, you have White Room Syndrome Extraordinaire.

"We have to kill Lester," Bob said with a stern gaze.
Bob nodded. "I know."
"It won't be easy, you know."
Bob cracked his knuckles. "We can do it."

While this might not seem like the worst thing in the world, imagine it going on page after page. More importantly, consider what is being gained (I'll give you a hint--nearly nothing.) Gazing sternly as you discuss killing someone isn't particularly interesting or surprising. Nodding as you say "I know" is redundant. Cracking your knuckles and grinning might have a little value, showing a can-do attitude, but it's rather cliche. It's what I call "Gray Room Syndrome"--details exist, but they are bland and nonspecific.

Excessive stage directions, or Gray Room Syndrome, is a symptom. What's the disease? It could be...

1) Lack of Focus. You don't know what you want your characters to do, so you have them scratch their noses and fidget.

2) Boring Characters, Dialog, or Action: Your characters grin to give them "personality", gaze into each others' eyes to convey true love that isn't coming across in the dialog, and crack their knuckles because they're just standing around talking as you info-dump.

3) Laziness: You haven't taken the time to imagine those magical tidbits of action and vivid sensory description that make characters and settings come alive. (Shocking revelation: writers who use such vivid tidbits don't usually think of them spontaneously as they write. They are the fruits of time and effort.)


1) Communicate physical action or setting details that are necessary to the story, such as conveying that the characters are traveling or eating.

2) Make sense of dialog that otherwise wouldn't make sense, particularly when a character's words don't match his actions or inner feelings.

3) Characterize in unique, interesting ways, including revelations of a character's feelings and judgments about what is going on. (Tip: Facial tics and knuckle-cracking habits are not unique, revealing forms of characterization.)

4) Help display a rise in tension throughout the dialog (by this I mean story tension, which is usually but not necessarily negative. For example, characters in a dialog should be gradually becoming more angry, or more in love with one another, or more dependent on one another, or more caught up in a web of lies, or any other meaningful development.)

By the way, you can do more than one of the above at once. Let's go back to Bob and his murderous friend.

"We have to kill Lester," Kirk said.
"I know," Bob replied, trying to hide his excitement. Had the worm finally grown a spine?
"It won't be easy, you know."
"We can do it." Or, you can...

(Disclaimer: I always feel awkward when I demonstrate "improvements". What if it still sucks? But then I remind myself that I'm a freaking genius and I press on. Even if I'm being delusionally conceited, it lets me finish the lesson. This kind of self-lauding inner talk works just as well for getting yourself to finish novel manuscripts.)

Seriously, isn't that more interesting? It's only a little longer, and suddenly SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. We know what Bob thinks of Kirk. We have progress because Kirk was apparently once unable to voice the need to kill Lester. And you know that Bob intends it to be "he" that kills Lester, not "we". I think I've accomplished (3) and (4) on my list.


- Don't go overboard. Did you see that expansion after the second line? If I had thrown in some description of the room, more detail of the history, and some indications of physical action, pretty soon you'd forget what Bob had said by the time Kirk answers. By the way, this is one of the obstacles to opening a story with dialog. If characters just talk, the reader feels lost, having no knowledge of the setting or what the people are doing or why. But if you launch into too much stage directing and description, the reader loses track of the dialog.

- Then again, make sure you set the scene early. The above snippet would work better in the middle of a scene as opposed to the beginning because it doesn't describe the setting. Don't info-dump, but it's often best to set the scene before launching into a dialog, or early in.

- Beware timing snafus. Any interruption to dialog comes across as a passage of time, unless it is very short. If someone asks a question and there's a long spell of verbiage before the answer comes, the reader will perceive it as if the character paused before answering. Make sure you intend that pause; if not, have the character answer first, then think. Here's one with no exceptions: if someone interrupts, or any sort of instantaneous response or reaction occurs, you must state it immediately:

"What is the name of those little red fruits that--"
John cut in on him, wanting to prove how smart he was: "Tomatoes."

No! Bad writer. No contract. It should read:

"What is the name of those little red fruits that--"
"Tomatoes," John said, in order to prove how smart he was.

- Attempting to reduce stage directions by "putting it all in the dialog" is effective when used sparingly, but if you take it too far, it starts to sound silly:

"Bob, we have to kill Lester."
"So, you finally manned up and realized it, huh?"
"Yes, although I don't appreciate your insulting remarks. It won't be easy, though."
"Don't be a baby about it. We can do it."

Notice the use of "Bob" in the first line to cue the reader that the speaker is talking to Bob. This is okay occasionally, but people don't usually do that in real conversation. It drives me crazy when writers have characters constantly saying each other's names. In the second line, I took the attitude of my judgmental character and put his thoughts into his dialog. This is fine, too, but it's a different character who says exactly what he's thinking. If all of your characters do this (or even most of them), you are trying too hard to eliminate stage directions. It's also an unrealistic way for people to behave.

BOTTOM LINE: Cut stage directions that aren't accomplishing something useful. Remove some to tighten your writing. Replace others with something more vivid and creative, but fit it into the dialog in an appropriate place. And sorry about those rutabaga recipes. I'll share them another time.

NEXT: The Ten Commandments of Fight.

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