Category Archives: Directions

The Mystery of the Swiss Waiter

I sometimes give talks.  My focus is somewhere on the interface between writer and publisher; that’s the interesting part: boundaries are where the friction happens.  Unfortunately, I always seem to run out of time to talk about Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was a byword for friction with his publishers.  Probably his best-known blow to the publishing nose is the following:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.  The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

I think that part of the reason passage gets into dictionaries of quotations is the bit about the Swiss waiter.  Whilst I have sampled a few Swiss restaurants, I must have paid insufficient attention to the speech patterns of the staff, because I cannot recall any peculiarity that links them to Chandler.  I suspect that what he was getting at was that people from multi-lingual countries* may speak sentences in one language using word order transposed from another.

Chandler was being self-deprecating in saying that the method was all he had. He knew exactly what he was doing.  What he was doing was writing dialogue in an adopted persona.  The following comes from another of his letters (to the editor of the Atlantic monthly) about an article he has written:

I should like to mention one error in this article because it is the kind of thing I can never understand. (…)  It reads: ‘and not examine the artistic result too critically’.  What I wrote was: ‘and not too critically examine the artistic result’…  It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words.  I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong stressed syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination.

Chandler was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century.  He wrote the Philip Marlowe detective stories in the first person and, since that person was the archetypal rough diamond, the emphasis is deliberately on the strength of the phrase rather than grammatical elegance.  If he wants to split an infinitive, just stand back and admire the Chandleresque results.

Writing in the first person is to inhabit the character.  It’s what playwrights do in creating dialogue that differentiates one role from another; the speech patterns belong to the character, not to Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  Thus I wince every time an editor or proof reader reports that a script was full of bad grammar.  However, before heaping scorn on the editorial hireling, it is worth noting that most of this criticism applies not to the construction of dialogue but to the stage directions.  Whilst dialogue may well be a voyage of discovery for the actors, the directions should be beacons of clarity.

So, by all means aspire to be a stylist with your own esque, but if you want your editors to leave your dialogue unchanged, your stage directions have to be perfect.

Raymond Chandler

* The best multi-lingual waiter I ever came across was in Brussels. I was dining with a Dutch colleague and there was a French couple on the next table. The waiter addressed the French people in English, the Dutchman in French and me in Dutch in what I suspect was a deliberate equality of insult.

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.

The Problem of Bums on Seats

Seats awaiting bums
Seats awaiting bums.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that the reason that the language mutates so much is that we do not exercise enough of our vocabulary.  Firstly, if people don’t hear a word in use, they don’t know that it exists and therefore they feel the need to invent another one for the same purpose.  Thus are synonyms born.  Secondly, we learn words by hearing them spoken in context.  If a word is in infrequent use, then it is easy to make mistakes about the context and, by repeating them, to change the meaning.

There are particular problems with English.  It has a huge lexicon, with Anglo-Saxon roots supplemented by loan words ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is spoken in many different countries (as official language or lingua franca) and so it mutates at different rates, giving the same word different meanings in different places.  Take for example “presently” and “momentarily”.

I still speak an old-fashioned variety of British English in which “presently” does not mean “at present”.  To me, presently is used to indicate the near future; a future time with a direct connection to the present.  For use of it in this sense, go back to your childhood, and look at The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.  (If necessary, borrow someone else’s childhood for the purpose.)  Similarly, I can distinguish between “in a moment” and “for a moment”.  For the former, I would use “soon” or, indeed, “presently”.  To me “momentarily” has the latter meaning: fleeting; for the shortest possible time.  (So I can distinguish between “I will join you presently,” and “I will join you momentarily.”)  When I made regular flights into San Francisco airport, I was plagued by visions of my worldly goods flashing before my eyes before being dumped into the bowels of the airport, never to be seen again.  The cause of this discomfort was the announcement “your luggage will be on the carousel momentarily”.

Another example that causes particular grief in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is the simple verb “to sit”.  Sit is an active verb.  It describes an act of doing, not a state of being.  “The teacher told the pupils to sit and they sat.”  That past tense describes the act of having bent the knees and engaged buttocks with chair.  It does not describe the end point.  It tells us that the pupils executed the instruction, but not what they were doing afterwards.  The reason this vexes me (and causes loud expostulations from Sue, the proof reader) is that we keep finding scene-setting directions that say things like “the king is sat on the throne”.  Read that again, bearing in mind that “to sit” is an active verb.  The only way that the direction “is sat” can be interpreted is that it is something being done to the king: as the curtain rises someone forces him onto his throne.

This is one of those occasions where we have lost a word.  We need a word that indicates that as the curtain rises, the king is already in position on his throne.  Having forgotten the word, we butcher the language by using the past tense of an active verb to indicate a passive present.  To rediscover this word, approach your favourite chair and put your buttocks thereupon.  Now wriggle a little to achieve an even distribution of your weight on the supporting furniture.  When you are comfortable, you will realise that you have seated yourself.  The king is seated.

The Downside of Directions

Rehearsal of Miss Glossop's Weekend Break. Photo by Sue ArdernThe role of director as we know it today is a relatively recent invention in the theatre.  Nevertheless it’s an important job, and a different job from that of the author.  The director helps the actors to develop a coherent interpretation of the author’s work.   If you are writing, you don’t need to do the director’s job (or the actor’s).  You don’t need to tell the actor how to say the lines.  You don’t need to direct every move.

Nevertheless, where you are giving stage directions, you do need to be clear.  To that end, I try to discourage abbreviation in directions.  If something happens Down-stage Left, then it’s better to say it that way than to abbreviate it to DSL (just because some companies include novices who won’t know how to interpret the abbreviations – and may even struggle with upstage and down).  You’re not going to save very much of your typing time or the printer’s ink by abbreviating Upstage to US – and if you find you are typing it so much that the time saving becomes significant, then you are probably doing the director’s job and blocking all the moves in the show.

Whilst arguing against the writer doing the director’s job, Peter Ayre told me a tale told to him by a festival adjudicator about a company who had been using a script from “French’s Acting Editions”.
A digression here: based on their long history, Samuel French have taken a different approach to stage directions.  Peter John Cooper tells me that their Acting Editions used to be based on the “Prompt’s Copy” for the original production.  This included any changes made to the author’s text by the director, plus the blocking of every move.  For a long-running production, the Prompt’s Copy was the definitive text, used to resolve any disputes and used by the Deputy Stage Manager to rehearse any actor joining the cast to take over a role.  Turning this into a published text assumes that the original production was definitive, that any new production will have the same set design and that there is no role for interpretation by the new director.  In my view, this is a dangerous set of assumptions.  At worst it leads to the sort of ossification for which (before the copyright ran out) Gilbert and Sullivan productions used to be famous.  There’s a 1948 Flanders and Swan parody “In the D’Oyly Carte” where Donald Swan’s lyric suggests that every move was the same as it had been for the last fifty years:-

One that with tender passion fired
(Turn, pace, hand over heart),
Woe to the day that we were hired
By D’Oyly Carte!

(A brief exchange with my contact, Steve, suggests that these days Samuel French rely on the author’s directions rather than the prompt copy in their Acting Editions.)

Anyway, back to Peter Ayre’s story: the adjudicator was puzzled as to why the production opened with an actress crouched beneath a table.  Upon querying this he was told that “the book says mother is sitting below the table”.

Directing Strong Women

Image created for Westinghouse by J. Howard Miller. Now in the public domain.Occasionally, we come across stage directions like the one Nathan found in a Nativity pastiche: “Enter Jane – carrying baby Jesus, Michael and Mary.”  It’s very tricky to cast roles that require such a balance of delicacy and strength.
Of course, it’s clear what the writer meant, so we could just let it stand.  On the other hand, it detracts from the quality of the writing and we’d prefer the laughs to come from the deliberate comedy.

It can be difficult to phrase stage directions to convey all the information succinctly.  In this case, the writer was trying to combine two lists – the list of characters entering the stage and the list of things carried by Jane.  The optimum phrasing depends on whether or not the order of entrance is important and how many characters are carrying objects.  So, for example:

  • If the order is unimportant: “Enter Michael, Mary and Jane who carries baby Jesus.”
  • If the order matters: “Enter Jane, carrying baby Jesus, followed by Michael and Mary.”
  • If more people carry things: “Enter Jane, Michael and Mary.  Jane carries baby Jesus, Michael carries a bag…”

Punk and Punctuation

(One of the novels Jane Austen never got round to writing.)

I recently had one of my occasional arguments with Bill Tordoff.  These are conducted in an atmosphere of good-natured grumpiness (on both sides), but are, in my view, worthwhile for forcing me to clarify my thinking on a subject.  In this case, the issue was punctuation, particularly the punctuation of stage directions.  Bill was so incensed by my habit of putting full stops (period marks, if you punctuate in American English) at the end of directions that he did a survey of other publishers to find out what they did.  He found a wide variety of things, including italics, various shapes of brackets, sentence case, lower case, and even directions in margins.  What Bill didn’t find was any other publishers habitually using full stops.  On the other hand, I did (in the first book off my shelf – Orton’s complete plays, published by Methuen Drama).  The point here is that there isn’t a right or wrong way of doing it, but each script (and each publishing house) has to be consistent.Bookshelf
Exasperated, Bill pointed to the following (in his abridgement of Johnson’s Volpone):

Volpone:      (Rising and fondling artefacts.)  Let me kiss with adoration every relic!

As Bill (elegantly) put it, directions like that are not sentences “they are participial phrases because they don’t contain a finite verb, and should therefore end with a comma, if anything, and not a full stop.”  Grammatically, he is entirely correct.  However, the function that fragment performs is to stand in for a sentence.  (A sentence like “Volpone rises and fondles the artefacts.”)  That it omits a main verb (and even, arguably, a subject) is a consequence of the imperative to keep directions as brief as possible.  It is certainly not part of the (spoken) sentence that follows it and therefore (in the way I lay down the rules for scripts published by Lazy Bee) it should be punctuated as separate from the spoken sentence and not continuous with it.
On the other hand, directions within a single sentence should be punctuated as part of the sentence.  Consider this (from the same source):

Voltore:      This lewd woman here (indicating Celia) has long been known […]

Formatting of stage directions – and even speeches in a play script isn’t easy.  Just take a look at the start of a line of speech.  It starts with a character name, but that character name is not part of the speech, therefore the speech itself starts with a capital letter, even though the preceding words did not form a (closed-off) sentence.
A few guidelines (from the Lazy Bee Scripts perspective):

  • If a direction comes at the start of a speech, punctuate the direction as a sentence (start with a capital letter, end with a full stop).  Start the speech with a capital letter.
  • If a direction comes between two sentences of a speech, punctuate the direction as a sentence.
  • If a direction comes within a sentence, punctuate it as if it formed part of the sentence.
  • Directions are part of the speech, not part of the character name (so the layout is as per Volpone’s speech above, with a separator between the character name and the direction).
  • Directions should be written for the cast, not from the point of view of the audience.  Instead of “A young man enters…” write “Tom enters…”
  • With the exception of scene-setting directions, they should be immediate (telling the cast or crew to do something during the show, not what they should have done to prepare).
  • Keep it short.

As I say, this is from a Lazy Bee Scripts perspective.  Other publishers will take different views.  In all cases, the first imperative is to be consistent.

Directions Unbuttoned

When he was editing Mike Smith’s What Manner of Man, Nathan was tripped-up by an author’s note: “Stage directions are minimal, but more are implied, I hope, by the dialogue.”  To Nathan, this seemed to translate into “I couldn’t be bothered to write directions.”  Not so.  In this case, the script contained as many directions as I’d expect to find in a piece for a serious adult theatre company.  Clearly, this depends on what you are writing, how you write, and for whom you are writing.  If you’re writing a bedroom farce, then some gags rely on specific locations or movements (if someone’s already hiding behind the curtains, the next person has to be instructed to get into the wardrobe).  If you’re writing for kids, then it may make sense to say things about mood and expression that you would not need to say for adults.  (On the other hand, you can argue that even for kids, directions of manner are part of the process of developing the production between director and actors.  More of that another time.)

Back in 2011, Bob Heather and I were at the NODA South-East Regional Conference, where actor and director Paul Doust gave a presentation.  Actually, not so much a presentation as a short directing workshop, as he got some of the delegates up on the stage illustrating his points by developing a performance from a text.

PaulDoustPaul was asked what he did about directions in the script and said that he tended to ignore them.  (At least, he ignored those that weren’t essential.)  He reminded us that Shakespeare gives very few directions (they have their entrances and exits but Shakespeare never actually tells his actors to strut and fret), and that where some action was needed, it was implicit in the speech.  (Paul’s example came from Lear trying to revive the dying Cordelia: “Unbutton here.”)

This is not a plea for everyone to adopt a specific approach to stage directions; just food for thought.