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Tips To Get to the Top of the Pile: Stage Directions

Updated: Dec 13, 2019


The name on everybody's lips has got to be: no, not Roxie – Stage Directions.


OK – so that's two words and it's not really a name, and - let's face it - it really depends on the company you keep. But a question we get asked all the time at WriteForTheStage is: Should I use stage directions in a play script?


And while there’s a definite preference that prevails across the land, there’s no actual prescriptive answer.


Look at Ibsen, Miller, O'Neill and the like, and you'll discover stage directions aplenty. Look at more contemporary playwrights such as Macmillan, Kelly, and Stephens, and the stage direction is all but defunct.


So – who is right? The classics or the modernists?


Perhaps, the best way to address this question is to rephrase it:


The questions we should really be asking ourselves is:

  • What IS a stage direction?

  • What is its purpose?, and

  • When is a good time to use one?


And that can inform your decision as to whether a stage direction has a place in your script.


In this article, we're going to help you decide whether your stage direction is an ACTION or whether it's superfluous duplication.


Some Context

Each year we run the WriteForTheStage Prize for New Writing in conjunction with the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. The first prize is a publication with WriteForTheStage Books.


And while we read the script to decide upon our winner, we also attend the production of the play; judging how well the writing stands up to performance.


We don't judge the acting or the directing; we look specifically at the writing. Of course, lousy direction and awful acting can wreck a great script – but our job is to see through that. And great direction and incredible acting can elevate average writing. And we can see through that as well

because our final decision is made from the page.


Ultimately:


A playscript is a blueprint to production. And a great production is usually down to excellent writing. But the text is king (or other gender-non-specific positions of nobility) and most competitions and readers judge a piece on the book.


And an unnecessary proliferation of stage directions is likely to bring nothing but a journey to the bottom of the pile.


What Is A Stage Direction?

A play is a sequence of actions.


And every action gives way to a reaction which, in turn, inspires a new action (or response).


A play, therefore, is a cyclone of action funnelling towards an inevitable climax where the eye of the storm reveals a new world of calm or chaos (dependent upon whether we’re looking at comedy (in the Elizabethan sense) or tragedy).


Action is the protagonist recognising and overcoming the Problem of the World: driven by an objective to change the problem, facing obstacles that ultimately demonstrate their mettle, and changing the world against the odds.


Change is inevitably intertwined with action because action is transformative:


Characters change each other to change the world.


Erm:


I thought we were talking about stage directions, here?


A Stage Direction Is An Action

If we accept the premise that plays are built of action, and actions are functions of change, then it follows that everything on the page should be active and transformative.


So, a stage direction should be an action – not a description.


What’s the difference between an action and a description?


Of course, there’s room on the page for SOME description – we often need SOME description.


But:


The description shouldn’t stifle the action.


Let’s take a look at the opening of Orphans, by Dennis Kelly.


HELEN and DANNY ’s flat.

A candlelit dinner, interrupted.

HELEN dressed up, DANNY dressed up.

LIAM stands there having just come in.

He has blood all down his front.

Pause.

They stare at him.

For a long time.

Kelly, Dennis. Dennis Kelly: Plays Two (Oberon Modern Playwrights) (Kindle Locations 1922-1928). Oberon Books. Kindle Edition.


Note the lack of conjunctions – and, but, or, etc. Every word in this opening description is direct – there’s no froth.


A lesser writer – and by that, I mean one who has less trust in their words – might have written:


HELEN and DANNY’s flat. A table and two chairs.

The flat is minimally furnished, with a clock on the wall and a patterned wallpaper that suggests aspiration.

A single flame burns in the centre of the dinner table, at which they’re midway through a salmon meal – this is DANNY’s speciality.

Both HELEN and DANNY are done up to the nines – this is a special occasion, and the kids are with DANNY's mum. He's on a promise. Or so he thinks.

LIAM (HELEN’s brother) stands before them. He has blood all over his shirt and trousers.

There’s a long silence, during which nobody is sure what to say or do.


While not exactly excessive, over-explanations lack punch.


Dennis Kelly's opening gives just enough information to thrust us into the action. We can assume it’s a special occasion by Helen and Danny’s attire. We don’t need to know that Liam is Helen’s brother at this stage. We don’t need to know what the rest of the flat looks like – it’s superfluous.


Kelly’s stage opening gives the reader and the director scope to imagine while focusing entirely on WHAT is happening.


As an opening, you don’t get much more concise.


Classics

Compare Kelly’s brevity on the page to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill.


While being a recognised modern classic, it highlights a significant shift in theatrical writing.


The first three and a half pages of Long Day’s Journey are descriptive, giving a blow-by-blow account of the room. In fact, you could argue that it’s not just a description; it's a potted history.

O'Neill, Eugene. Long Day's Journey Into Night (Jonathan Cape Paperback, 46) (pp. 4-5). Random House. Kindle Edition.


I mean, who are we to criticise a recognised modern classic?

However:


There's evidence to suggest that the stage directions included in classic plays were never from the playwright's pen, but were stage manager notes recorded from the first production.


Compare the extent of the stage directions in Long Day‘s Journey to ANY Shakespeare play, and you'll find that the descriptive matter is confined to entrances, exits, and the occasional blast of a bugle.


So, you could say that stage directions follow fashion. And the days of the long, detailed prosaic stage direction are – currently – not in vogue.


You could argue that long stage directions were written in a time of austerity (because it’s the end of austerity for us, apparently). Playwrights had less expectation that the play be performed and, so, adopted a more prosaic approach to offer more to the reader. The play was written to be read as much as performed.


But today’s trend is for minimal stage description and direction.


Action Vs Movement


If we’re to take the Active Model of Stage Directions (I’ve just made that up, but it sounds good) as the modern approach, we should confine our stage directions purely to action.


“John crosses to Stage Left” - in itself - is not an action; it’s a movement.


We should differentiate between a “movement” (something that a director might give to an actor to prevent overly-static stage play) and action (something a character does to change another character).


In most circumstances, we should avoid “directing movement” in our script, because long description of movement actually stifles the reader’s comprehension of the action.


However, that movement: John crosses to Stage Left might become an action if it evokes a reaction in another character.


Be Specific

If we were more specific, we have a more explicit action: i.e., John blocks the door.


If, for example, Character A is trying to seduce Character B, and A crosses to Stage Left to block the door, then you could call that movement “action” because it’s forcing a response from B.


B might feel threatened or challenged or defiant or infuriated; responding to A’s action with a strategic counter-action.


Perhaps they tell A, "you're wasting your time", or “move”, or “this isn’t how this works.” Or maybe they barge A out of the way.


Each of those responses represents a counter-action – respectively: I defy you, I confront you, I belittle you, I fight you.


Equally, B might feel the threat while choosing not to show it; strategising to get A to move away.

Perhaps A blocks the door and B charms them, “I love that you’re strong. Come over here and show me your muscles.”


And by doing so, they present a new evocation to action.


Eighteen

In my play, Eighteen, (published by WriteForTheStage Books) Caroline has just turned up at Al’s house. They haven’t seen each other in eighteen years (guess how I came up with the title), and she has come to deliver a significant piece of news that is likely to change everything.


They both realise that eighteen years is a long time: the person that they expected to see isn't the person t now see.


Caroline’s nerves manifest in verbal diarrhoea.

CAROLINE (Shouting) You haven’t got much furniture, have you? You can barely see the floor with all the shit at mine. It’s minimalist, isn't it? Hey, it's quite big.


She finds the stereo remote and presses play: The Nightingale, Scene 1 (The Forest at Dawn):VI Chamberlain and Bonze, by Stravinsky starts playing. It’s very loud.

She jumps and clutches her chest as she tries to find the volume on the remote. Then sits down and tries to appreciate the music.

After a couple of beats, she turns her nose up in a cringe and switches it off quickly.


CAROLINE Have you not got any Sugarbabes, Al?

SFX - The chain flushes.

CAROLINE That was a long piss. Are you sure you haven’t slipped out a cheeky number two?

Al? I said are you sure you haven't slipped out a cheeky number...

AL What’s that?

AL enters.

Caroline looks away.

CAROLINE Nothing.

AL What?

CAROLINE No. Nothing. It doesn’t matter.

AL Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. Go on.

CAROLINE I was just... No, it really doesn’t matter.

AL No, honestly. I didn’t hear what you were asking. Tell me.

CAROLINE I was just saying that that was a long wee and was wondering whether you’d had a cheeky number...two. I was joking - I wasn’t checking up on you or anything. It's good to be regular, isn't it? Sometimes it’s days for me. I have to have syrup of figs to get me moving - it’s awful. Have you ever tried it?

AL No.

CAROLINE It can be days, sometimes. I almost went a whole week once. That was awful; I was so bloated. I felt like Vanessa Feltz during one of her many fat stages.

I’ve got some stool softener in my handbag. Don't worry; you don't stick it up your bum - it’s a sachet. I know what men are like about sticking things up their bums. I saw it advertised on Living. The sachet, not men sticking things up their...

It’s good. I felt a stone lighter once it’d done its magic. I was so relieved. You have one if you want.

AL Thanks. No.


She rummages in her bag and offers a sachet.


AL I'm fine. I just had a wee.

PAUSE

Reads so much better as:

CAROLINE (Shouting) You haven’t got much furniture, have you? You can barely see the floor with all the shit at mine. It’s minimalist, isn't it? Hey, it's quite big.


SILENCE

She picks up a remote control. Presses play: Stravinsky. Deafening, violent, discordant.

PAUSE

She switches it off.


CAROLINE Have you not got any Sugarbabes, Al?


The toilet flushes.


CAROLINE That was a long piss. Are you sure you haven’t slipped out a cheeky number two? Al? I said are you sure you

haven't slipped out a cheeky number...

AL What’s that?

AL enters.

CAROLINE Nothing.

AL What?

CAROLINE No. Nothing. It doesn’t matter.

AL Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. Go on.

CAROLINE I was just...

No, it really doesn’t matter.

AL No, honestly. I didn’t hear what you were asking. Tell me.

CAROLINE I was just saying that that was a long wee and was wondering whether you’d had a cheeky number...two. I was joking - I wasn’t checking up on you or anything. It's good to be regular, isn't it? Sometimes it’s days for me. I have to have syrup of figs to get me moving - it’s awful.

Have you ever tried it?

AL No.

CAROLINE It can be days, sometimes. I almost went a whole week once. That was awful; I was so bloated. I felt like Vanessa Feltz during one of her many fat stages.

I’ve got some stool softener in my handbag. Don't worry; you don't stick it up your bum - it’s a sachet. I know what men are like about sticking things up their bums. I saw it advertised on Living. The sachet, not men sticking things up their...

It’s good. I felt a stone lighter once it’d done its magic. I was so relieved. You have one if you want.

AL Thanks. No.

She rummages in her bag. Offers a sachet.

AL I’m fine. I just had a wee.

PAUSE


Read the whole script.


Parenthesis

Parenthesis is the stuff in brackets, usually indicating to the actor how a particular line might be delivered.


But:


Herein lies another problem.


Parenthesis on every line becomes a duplication of the action.


If we have:

JOHN (Angrily) GO!

ANDY (Defiantly) No!

JOHN (Trickily) Stay then.

ANDY (Patronisingly) Do I look stupid?


Then, not only do we quickly begin to run out of adverbs, but we fail to trust the action of the dialogue.


It reads much better as:

JOHN GO!

ANDY No!

JOHN Stay then.

ANDY Do I look stupid?


Not only does that read with greater clarity, it actually heightens the impact of each line.


We know that Andy’s first line is defiant by what he says. “(Defiantly)” becomes unnecessary duplication, interrupting the flow of the line.


And, here, we more clearly see the shift in “Do I look stupid?”


However:


Where a character’s line belies their intention because they’re using a strategy, we could use parenthesis.


So:

JOHN GO!

ANDY No!

JOHN (Friendly) Stay then.

ANDY Do I look stupid?


What about BEATs, PAUSEs, and SILENCEs?

If anything punctuates an action, it’s a pause or a silence.


But what’s the difference?


While there’s no ONE definition, I don’t think you can beat Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox’s definitions they gave in a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row during an interview about their production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.


Charlie Cox said:

“During or after a SILENCE, one or other of the characters are changed.


And then you have to pick up the new moment at the end of it.


There’s something very dead and alive to a SILENCE that a PAUSE doesn’t quite have.


A PAUSE is five seconds compared to a SILENCE which feels eternal. A PAUSE is where you were going to say something, but you decided not to. Or perhaps, you thought the other person was going to say something, and they didn’t.”


So, a SILENCE isn’t a moment on stage where nothing is happening – a SILENCE is a moment on stage where EVERYTHING is happening, despite nothing being said. It’s characters digesting the situation, making decisions, and reacting to that moment.


SILENCEs are exciting – because something is happening that forces the audience to engage; to recognise a response and read between the lines for themselves.


Tom Hiddleston complemented that with:

“When a play is so much about characters not saying what they mean, the SILENCEs allow the subtext to live.”


I just love that definition: SILENCE is where the subtext lives. It’s where we see the truth – even if the character is in denial.


A BEAT, on the other hand, is a short moment – it’s a double-take. When someone asks an unexpected question, the receiver of that question might not be prepared, making a perceptible thought before responding.


For example:


Kurt Wizaard's chamber.

Wizaard (OS throughout) is heard through a booming tannoy.

SOPHIA sits at a table in a spot-light, flicks through a fifty-page contract.

SOPHIA We can negotiate?

KURT It rolls out today.

SOPHIA I'll take it home and really go over it all and consider the

KURT I can assign the extra budget to another store.

SOPHIA Well, maybe that's /for the (best)

KURT You're the flagship.

BEAT

SOPHIA Then I'm sure you'll want me to go into things /with my eyes open

Playing God, by Mike Heath


When Kurt suggests “You’re the flagship,” it throws Sophia for a moment, causing her to reconsider her response. All Kurt’s lines up until that point are combative – It rolls out today (I block you), I can assign the extra budget to another store (I threaten you), You’re the flagship (I flatter you).


So, the BEAT shows us that Sophia struggles to come up with an instant response. It’s a double-take; a sudden swerve ball forcing a new strategy.


Trust Your Words

If you write your script from a perspective of action – characters DOING things to each other to meet an objective – then you should trust that your dialogue alone is enough to convey the action.


Consider a stage direction to be a non-verbal action that demands either a physical or verbal response, and you can’t go wrong.


Many of us write way too many stage directions in a first draft. See what you might gain by thinning them out. See how the drama breathes when you get rid of duplication of action.


Trust your words to carry the action without excessive explanation. Avoid pages of explanatory prose at the start of your play. Plunge us directly into the action.


And your script will rise to the top of the pile.


We're not saying that you shouldn't use stage directions - far from it. But choose your words wisely - be succinct and direct, and only include actions.


For more information about playwriting, try out The WriteForTheStage Podcast.