While reading my play, a friend pointed a missing or sparse element in the use of my stage directions. He noted that while my characters are speaking, little or no hint of body movement or mannerism is written down. I agreed with his suggestion to include more body language or emotion in the direction, but I wanted to get a second opinion. Is this a common mistake in first drafts for many? How often, if even at all, should I use this element? Can this be considered as stifling the actor's creativity and interpretation of the character?
Allow me to be brutally blunt. Your friend is wrong. And you were wrong to agree with him. Period. The common mistake in first scripts is to include extraneous stage and character directions. The minute a reader worth his or her salt comes upon them they know they are dealing with an amateur. Unless it is ABSOLUTELY necessary to the development of the character and/or plot (which it seldom is) forget about it.
Its good thing that I didn't make any new changes in this respect. In fact, I was wary to agree with him when he noted his suggestion, because I have never seen any excess of this stage direction usage in any printed plays. You are right: it is best not to unnecesarily clog up a play's pages with written emotions that can be detected and displayed by any competent actor.
Thanks for helping me in avoiding some literary castastrophe.
Last edited on Tue Apr 14th, 2009 02:25 pm by RTurco
Plenty of stage directions is an infallible sign of an amateur. The fewer the stage directions, the more actors and directors will like you and your script--and the better the chance that they'll take the stage directions seriously!
The trick--and this is not easy--is to figure out which stage directions are essential for the actors to be able to get what's happening in the play. (I always end up adding four or five stage directions after the first production of one of my plays when I discover that things that I thought were "obvious" weren't!) Include only those stage directions.
As I have weighed in before on this topic, still the funniest stage direction I ever read – because of its perfect POSITIONING in the play – is from David French’s backstage comedy “Jitters” :
“ROBERT (the playwright) reacts to this.”
The days of long expository stage directions are generally gone. Though I have seen some new plays that have a lot of them in between the dialogue. Several lines of them interspersed but not very lengthy paragraphs. Often they are terribly written, on the level of a manual to a new DVD player. I look upon good stage directions as road signs. Just as I look upon punctuation as road signs.
What is necessary is the rule. Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” is filled with stage directions because they are totally necessary. I would add one more thing to the discussion. Good stage directions are generally ones that essentially FUNCTION AS DIALOGUE. They contribute to the ACTION or the tension of the scene. If they are neutral, cut them. If they guide the reader/actor deeper or further, keep them.
RTurco, you answered it for yourself when you wrote “You are right: it is best not to unnecessarily clog up a play's pages with written emotions that can be detected and displayed by any competent actor.”
I would also add competent reader, as if you submit it to a theatre, a reader is going to be reading it before an actor.
If we think we need stage directions - which overly often are just useless descriptions - then we should look at the lack of stability of our dialogue.
I read an article recently that talked about "Readable plays. Actable Plays. And Readable/Actable plays". Kind of interesting.
And Spence writes:
“The fewer the stage directions, the more actors and directors will like you and your script--and the better the chance that they'll take the stage directions seriously!”
Edd is totally correct.
Also, stage directions are not set descriptions. One is active the other is descriptive. But in a play, they still must be actively descriptive – for lack of a better way to say it. You must become a great docent in a museum or a great tour guide on an architectural tour when you write them. In the set descriptions, if you choose to utilize them, they can be brief as none but whatever you do, they must enhance the overall tone of your play.
I would say that in writing a first draft use anything that helps you as a writer to remember things you want to get across in the play in subsequent revisions. If you ever have looked at the journals of writers and the original texts, you can see the struggles they had in revising from the original work. But as this question is about revision, all the above apply.