Tag 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 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”.