As playwrights know, a script is made up of both dialogue and directions for movements on the stage. Good playwrights tend to trust the actors and directors to determine most of the movement beyond the entrance and exit of each actor. But there are always the micro-manager playwrights who put in every laugh, waving of the hand, and nodding of the head. These creators want the play to appear on the stage exactly in sync with the playwright’s own imagination. The actors are then treated like chess pieces to be moved with precision and intent for every moment of the play. The problem is that actors bring their own imaginations and skills to the role and overuse of stage direction stifles the actor’s ability to do his job well.
So, what does that have to do with children’s writers? Well, honestly, many of us can be a little heavy handed with the stage direction as well, and it can result in problems for selling our work and for connecting with the reader. Let’s look a bit at that.
Picture Books Are a Dance
Picture books are the most obvious spot where too much stage direction can kill a book. Picture books are actually a dance between the writer and the illustrator. The writer is the creator of the story text, so the writer is always leading the dance. But some writers aren’t comfortable with merely being in the lead. These writers actually prefer to pick up the illustrator like a dad with his tiny daughter and dance the illustrator through the story with lots and lots of stage direction. By overuse of stage direction in the text, the writers will tell the illustrator how everything looks. They’ll share the colors and clothes and blocking for the story. They’ll describe the setting with abundant specific detail. All the illustrator is left with is drawing the stuff already written. In other words, the writer restricts the illustrator’s ability to do his job well.
The best picture books are actually incredibly sparse in specific detail. Instead, the text will state things boldly but without a lot of detail, trusting the illustrator to come up with the best world for those things to happen in. The doesn’t mean the picture book author doesn’t include action. Picture books tend to have lots of action. For example, in Ann Whitford Paul’s If Animals Kissed Good Night, the rhyming text is full of action like “Mama Python and hatchling would kiss waggling around, twirling and twisting like rope loosely wound.” Notice how the author is paying more attention to the sound of the words than in calling up a specific image. David Walker, the illustrator, ultimately decided on the look of the snakes and what “waggling” and “twirling and twisting” would look like.
Other picture book writers give virtually no stage direction at all, leaving all of the look of the book to the illustrator. For instance, in Dragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin, the author is mostly chatting with human and dragon readers with text like, “Hey dragon, why do you guys love tacos so much?” Again, much of the attention in the text is on how it sounds and the voice reflected in the words.
But are picture books the only place where stage direction can be a problem? Isn’t it better if we give the reader lots and lots of detail in short stories, chapter books and novels? Yes, and no. Let’s look more at that.
Double Time Words
Writing longer prose tends to be about finding balance. Readers often won’t have the illustration support to see unusual things like space stations or wacky inventions, so they’ll appreciate a certain amount of detail upon which to hang their imaginations when you include unique things in a story. But the reader will bring a huge collection of experiences to the story and will use those experiences to “fill in the blanks” through imagination while reading. You see, in longer works, the dance you’ll be doing isn’t the playwright/actor dance or the picture book writer/illustrator dance. Instead, your dance is with the reader. The reader brings his or her own imagination to the story and will look to the story for places upon which to hang that imagination. If you give too little detail, the reader is confused and the story feels flat and uninteresting. In fact, many new writers are advised to include more action or include more specific detail. An overuse of stage direction often comes from good advice that ends up being poorly applied because the writer isn’t sure the purpose behind the action and detail.
For instance, have you ever written something like this with the intention of giving plenty of specific detail: “David was a boy who saw no reason to brush his hair or change his clothes too often. If it were up to him, he’d wear his favorite blue dinosaur shirt and cozy gray sweatpants every day. So Monday was his perfect day as he pulled on his dinosaur shirt and gray sweatpants and followed the sweet smell of chocolate chip pancakes and strawberry syrup into the kitchen.”
That little bit gives us both exposition (explaining about his personality) and stage direction (moving him from one place to another). But what does it do for the story? It does offer some characterization and if your story has lots of words available, that might be fine. But if you’re trying to craft a young reader short story in 800 words, you’ll have just spent a good sized chunk of them accomplishing very little.
Whenever writing a short story, ask yourself, “What am I accomplishing with this section?” Some good rules for trimming unnecessary exposition and stage direction are (1) if you don’t have a reason why it’s there, cut it out immediately. And (2) good content does more than one job at a time. So, imagine that the author of the above clip says, “I’m showing David’s personality and I’m setting up the story to show it looked like it was going to be a great day just before everything fell apart. Also, the dinosaur shirt is a clue to David’s love of dinosaurs, which will be important later when he finds the dinosaur egg in the yard, and the sweatpants signal that it’s not summer, thus giving a reason for David to carry the egg inside to hatch.” Now with all those reasons (and a decent available word count) the bit about David might stay. Or the writer might go back and realize that even with it doing all those things, he could do them with fewer words and get to the dinosaur egg in the garden quicker. Just be sure you have reasons for any direction and description. And your reason must go beyond “That’s how I see it” or “I wanted David to wear the same outfit my son loves.” Reasons that count are story reasons.
Inspiration Vs. Boredom
In novel writing, a multitude of readers have said, “When I get to long bits of description, I just skip over them.” Now, the meaning of “long bits” can be different for different readers. For some, a single long sentence describing how David got from the back door to the garden would be too much dull stage direction. For others, the reader will stick with you right up until you start telling the names of vegetation and layout of the garden. But the more detail and stage direction you layer on, the fewer readers will stick with you. Readers want stuff to happen––they want action. Because of this, some writers will load up the page with aimless action like this:
David slammed the back door and yelled, “Sorry,” before his mom could call him back for a lecture on door slamming. He picked up the mat next to the door to check for bugs. The mat always had the best beetles and pill bugs and wiggling worms, but the weather had been dry and cold so nothing lay under the mat but dirt. With a sigh, he let the mat drop back. He hop, hop, hopped across the lawn, then hop, hop, hopped backward to the steps. He turned around and hop, hop, hopped backwards to the garden. Each hop was higher and harder. Hop. Hop! HOP! The last hop was too long and he landed in the soft dirt of the garden. He wobbled and wiggled and tripped over something hard. Down he fell into the dirt. Right between his feet lay the strangest rock David had ever seen.
There is a lot of action happening in David’s time between leaving the house and finding the dinosaur egg. Certainly if readers love action, that gives us lots and lots of action, right? Unfortunately, the action feels aimless. It’s like a Family Circus cartoon acted out for us on the page, and it is almost certainly going to make a reader impatient for something purposeful to happen, even though the writer might argue that something is happening all the time. This is why the action that appears on the page needs to be purposeful and not aimless.
Stage Direction and Dialogue
The same kind of aimless movement can creep into dialogue. Many writers have been scolded for just having voices on the page that seem to be speaking in limbo with no movement or detail to ground them in the scene. So the writer begins throwing in movement thinking it’s enough just to have things move. For instance, a writer might pen something like this:
“Are you sure this won’t take long?” Pete waved his hand, then he pulled a yo-yo from his pocket and practiced walking the dog.
Benny kicked at a rock on the path and shoved his hands in his pockets. “It’ll take as long as it takes.”
Pete looped the yo-yo string around his neck and picked up the rock. “My folks don’t like me out after dark.”
Benny rubbed his nose with his sleeve and hitched his shoulders. “Nobody’s folks like that.”
Pete tossed the rock in the air and caught it. “I don’t know. I think Charlie’s folks like it when he goes out. It gives them some quiet.”
Benny snatched the rock out of the air. “I could use some quiet now.”
Once again, the writer might argue that this certainly avoids the disembodied voices problem. There is plenty of action rooting the characters to the physical world, but not much of the action seemed particularly purposeful. Instead the characters are in constant aimless motion and we still don’t really know where they are. The only real hint to hang our imaginations on is that there is a rock on the path so we know they aren’t inside. And again, the cure for the problem is to limit stage direction to things that feel purposeful. Instead of just sticking in movement, ask what the reader really needs to give a sense of place and reality and characterization and limit any stage direction to bits that do that. One example might be like this:
Pete looked back at the entrance to the graveyard. “Are you sure this won’t take long?”
Benny picked up speed, making Pete trot to keep up on the dark path. “It’ll take as long as it takes.”
“My folks don’t like me out after dark.”
Benny shrugged. “Nobody’s folks like that.”
Pete laughed, a nervous bark in the still air “I don’t know. I think Charlie’s folks like it when he goes out. It gives them some quiet.”
Benny shot him a hard look. “I could use some quiet now.”
Do you see how this revision includes action that reveals character and setting, making the stage direction do very specific things that help the story and give the reader some small details upon which to hang imagination? The reader then fills in all kinds of imagined details about graveyards in the dark. With every detail, every bit of stage-direction, the key is to make it purposeful. We don’t need to micromanage the reader’s imagination. We only need to include enough detail to inspire that imagination to fill in the rest of the world around those words on the page.
It can be a delicate dance, but a beautiful one.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.