Ten Tips for Writing Stage Directions

1. Direct the actors

Stage directions are not the same as TV and film directions.  The latter tend to be written from the point of view of the camera.  They say what the audience should see and therefore what the director should shoot.  Stage directions, by contrast, direct the actors.  So, where a TV script would say “we see two men sitting at a card table”, a stage script should say “Dom and Kev are sitting at the card table”.

2. Direction before action

Imagine that Helen has a long speech.  Then we find the direction “Derek, who has been dozing throughout Helen’s speech, finally begins to snore.”  That direction tells Derek what he should have been doing for the past half a page.  It’s better to tell the actor before the action – it makes rehearsals so much easier.

3. Direct the immediate

“Tarquin enters.  He is a tall, thin man with a droopy moustache.”  The actor playing Tarquin is unable to change his height and build as he enters the stage.  Thus they are matters for casting.  If those characteristics are essential to the role, then they should form part of a character profile, either at the start of the script or (better, in my view) in production notes.  Even growing a stick-on moustache takes time.

4. Don’t direct the audience

Some shows – particularly British pantomimes – have audience involvement. However, in general, members of the audience do not have copies of the script.  Consequently, they are notoriously bad at following stage directions.  By all means direct the actors to interact with the audience, but saying what the audience will do in response will only lull the actor into a false sense of security.

5. Set the scene

The director and actors need to know the features of their environment, but only as far as it is essential to what follows.  Thus it is good practice to start a scene with a brief scene-setting direction:
A country road.  A Tree.  Evening.

6. Knock, knock…

Who’s there?  The complement to the scene-setting direction is the “at rise” direction, to say who’s on stage when the curtain goes up.  The play always goes better when the right actors are on stage at the right time

7. Remember that all the world’s a stage…

Exit Stage LeftAnd all the men and women merely players;  They have their exits and their entrances…
And it’s the writer’s job to make sure that the people speaking have been told that they should be on the stage.  If you look at Shakespeare’s directions, aside from the special effects (all those alarums and excursions) they are almost completely limited to entrances and exits, which should tell you something about their importance.  Furthermore, lights go out, milk goes off, but actors exit.

8. Value terseness

Especially in early readings, excessive directions get in the way of the flow of the script.
Don’t give unnecessary details: “Charles picks up his favourite evening newspaper, the Oswestry Herald and Argus” can become “Charles picks up a newspaper.”
Don’t be tempted to put options into a direction: “Cynthia grabs a blunt instrument.  This might be a poker or a candle holder or an ornament.”  If you want to discuss the options, do so in production notes; for the direction, the blunt instrument is enough.
“John has spent five weeks teaching inorganic chemistry to teenagers.”  Better to restrict your directions to things the actors can convey to the audience.
(I love the way that ‘Value terseness’ is the longest tip.)
Even essential directions should be stated as briefly as possible.  But…

9. Don’t abbreviate unnecessarily

Experienced actors will understand what you mean by DSL or USC, but not all actors are experienced, and going through two levels of translation – from ‘DSL’ to ‘Downstage Left’ and from ‘Downstage Left’ to ‘over there’ will cause some to slow down.  And if you think you will save significant quantities of ink by writing DSL, then you are doing too much blocking, usurping the director’s job.

10. Don’t get your up and down back to front

Exit Stage Right“The living room of Pullover House.  There is a table centre with a sofa and cocktail cabinet backstage.”
Whilst I’m sure the actors will be very grateful for this little luxury, the audience will not be able to appreciate the cocktail cabinet or sofa, as they will be out of sight behind the set.  Use Upstage and Downstage, Stage Left and Stage Right.

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One thought on “Ten Tips for Writing Stage Directions

  1. No, I’m sorry but this is horrible advice. Follow these directions (especially regarding screenplays) and you are guaranteed to come across as an amateur. The whole “we see” thing is seriously constantly mentioned as a pet peeve by film industry bods. And the last thing a playwright should be doing is trying to direct the actors from within the script. A play is a collaborative work, not a static piece. As a playwright (and I’m speaking as someone who’s plays have been performed on the West End for some 20 years) you have to accept that your text is only a jumping off point for a production, and that the finished product will often differ significantly from what’s on the page.

    As a general rule, newbies should only put in as much stage directions as are absolutely necessary to make clear to the director what is happening on stage.

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