October 5, 2012 at 7:55 am

Editing Corner; Stage Direction

I meant to post this yesterday for Thursday Night Write.

Whoops!

This week’s editing corner focuses on something my agent likes to call “stage direction.” I thought he’d coined the term just for me (after working with him for over five years, this remains a challenge), but since I’ve been freelance editing, I’ve realized I’m not the only one who does it.

In short, stage direction is over-explaining the movements of your characters. Literary blocking, you might say.

I think the reason it’s been a challenge for me is because I see everything I’m writing as if its a movie. In fact, I’ve said before that I often feel that I’m channeling a story more than creating it, as if the story already exists out there and I’m just writing what I see in my mind.

As a writer, it’s a gift to see things this way. It enables one to create a rich atmosphere and and an immersive visual experience for the reader.

But it can also be distracting, forcing the reader to stop reading as they try to visualize every move of a character’s hand, every lift of the eyebrows, every smirk. Just as bad, it can mire your pacing, eliminating the momentum that is critical to a swiftly-moving story that pulls the reader through it in one smooth motion.

Dialog scenes, in particular, are a huge danger zone. You want to keep things moving as they would in real life, where we don’t stop to think about (or notice someone else) touching our hair, biting our lip, or putting a hand in our pocket.

Here’s a small example from an older manuscript of mine. At the time I wrote it, I was already aware of my stage direction problem. Even so, there are things I’d cut if I went back to edit it now.

“Here ya go.” Sarah pushed the steaming cup of tea toward me with a sympathetic smile. “Don’t work too hard.”

I thanked her, dropping a dollar in the tip jar. I was at the end of the counter when she called after me. “Tell your mom I hope she feels better.”

I came to a sudden stop. “What do you mean?”

She looked surprised. “She stayed home sick today. Didn’t you know?”

I shook my head. “I left early this morning.”

I stood there for a minute, fighting the alarm that slithered through my veins. I must have looked worried, because Sarah came down to the end of the counter.

“Hey,” she said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “I’m sure it’s nothing. I think I heard Helga mention a cold.”

“Yeah, but… she’s never sick.” It was true. In all the years my mom had owned the Depot, she had never missed a day of work. Not one. It didn’t matter if Helga, the store manager and my mom’s best friend, was on duty and my mom was so sick she could barely get out of bed. She was always here.

Sarah laughed a little. “Everyone gets sick sometime.”

I sighed, trying to feel relieved. “You’re right. Thanks, Sarah.”

 

If I were to go back and edit it now, this is what I’d do;

“Here ya go.” Sarah pushed the steaming cup of tea toward me. “Don’t work too hard.”

I thanked her, dropping a dollar in the tip jar. I was at the end of the counter when she called after me. “Tell your mom I hope she feels better.”

I came to a sudden stop. “What do you mean?”

“She stayed home sick today. Didn’t you know?”

“I left early this morning.”

I stood there for a minute, fighting the alarm that slithered through my veins. I must have looked worried, because Sarah came down to the end of the counter.

“Hey, I’m sure it’s nothing. I think I heard Helga mention a cold.”

“But… she’s never sick.” It was true. In all the years my mom had owned the Depot, she had never missed a day of work. Not one.

“Everyone gets sick sometime,” Sarah said.

“You’re right,” I sighed. “Thanks, Sarah.”

 

Truth? Even now, I’m cringing removing some of the stage direction. People won’t be able to see it the way I do! They won’t be as immersed in the scene!

IT WILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE!

But let’s be honest; the second version is cleaner. It moves faster. The dialog isn’t bogged down in a bunch of minutia that doesn’t add to the story. It’s an extremely small change, from an editing standpoint. But it makes a HUGE difference when applied to an entire manuscript.

So when editing your own work, remember; you’re not blocking a play. It’s not your job to lay out every movement. That’s the job of the reader – to take what you write and see it their way.

And if you ever need a reminder, here’s something funny to help you remember (hint; there is an overabundance of stage direction in this song about a guy who’s girlfriend is breaking up with him).

I’m entirely booked for full manuscript edits for October (a rare month in between writing projects), but I do have some slots left for three-chapter plus query letter critiques. Even a small-scale critique like this one can mean a big improvement if the suggestions are applied to an entire manuscript. Email me at prophecypress@aol.com for details!

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2 thoughts on “Editing Corner; Stage Direction

  1. Hello, lovely! This post totally made ME stop and step out of my google reader to comment. 🙂 First because I had to tell you that I love you EVEN MORE now that I know you also see things the way I do – like a movie, in your head. I don’t write stories, but I used to write a lot when I was younger and part of my problem was trying to describe a scene exactly as I SAW it when I closed my eyes. I have epic dreams, full colour, sometimes even full musicals with credits at the end. 😉 People always thought that was odd, I didn’t realize it was rare. Anyhow, I see things clear as if I was watching them right before my eyes. I like that we’re similar that way.

    ALSO.. Ioved this post! I LOVED the explanation of how to make a scene flow faster, even if you had to take out some of the direction. This was fascinating to me. Not something I’d ever think about on my own.

    And yes, it would kill me to have to remove the little things about a scene that to me make it the way I see it. I guess I’m not cut out to be an author or editor. heh 😉

    xoxoxo

    1. MichelleZink says:

      You are most definitely not alone. Though I’ve never actually had credits in my movie.
      😉

      And maybe you SHOULD be writing. Ahem! But if not, I hope it helps someone else out there.

      Love & miss you!
      <3

      MZ

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