Tag Archives: stage directions

Making A Scene

American play scripts tend to have a scene-setting direction before the start of the play, then the play starts with an “at rise” direction.  Whilst I often dislike the way this looks, I think the structure is hugely useful.  Let break this down.

Setting the Scene

A scene heading should indicate a change of time or place.  (There may be exceptions to this: in abstract theatre, with little or no set, where the action changes in time and space without any formal indication, arguably, you don’t need scene headings.  On the other hand, where there are separate blocks of dialogue it may be useful to break the text up into scenes. However the latter is for the purpose of rehearsal and is usually the director’s job rather than the author’s.)  So in normal circumstances, it can be useful to state the distinguishing feature of the scene (the time or place that has changed) in the scene heading.  So:-

Scene 1 – Monday Morning
Scene 2 – Monday Afternoon
Scene 3 – Twenty Minutes Later

All those happen in the same place, so (unless a later scene happens somewhere else), the location doesn’t distinguish one scene from another and there’s no need to put it in the heading.
Hang on a minute!  Where’s this play set?  And, come to that, when?  It’s all very well saying that it’s Monday Morning; I don’t want to wade though three pages of puzzling dialogue before I discover it’s 1744.  The readers needs that information; it’s not in the scene headings, so where do they find it?  This is where the scene-setting direction comes in.  One or more scene-setting directions should follow every scene heading.

A Time and A Place for Everything

The opening of the first scene-setting direction should tell the reader about geography and date.  The geography may be very specific (“a one-room apartment in Brooklyn”) or, if the country and city don’t matter, just the outline description of the setting (“a castle dungeon”).  The date can be vague (“the 1920s” or “the present day”) or specific (“June 6, 1944”).
The reason for my preference for this in a scene-setting direction, rather than (as in many American scripts) before any scene headings is that if the location or time changes, this can be described in a scene-setting direction for the specific scene).  Note, however, that you only need information at this level if and when it changes – so if all scenes are in that one-room apartment, you only need the information once.

Everything In Its Place

The stage is set.The next level of detail is a (brief) description of the set.  What does the reader (the director, the actors) need to know? What are the essential features of the set?  How many exits are there? Where are they? What and where is the essential furniture?
(There is an argument to be made here for including essential properties, particularly those that are at the boundary between set and props and tend to stay in the same place.  It is better to learn that there is a land-line telephone on Marjorie’s desk before it rings.)
Again, this level of detail is stated once and remains in place until there is a change of set.

Getting A Rise

Finally, the ‘At Rise’ direction says what happens when the curtain (or lights) go up.  Who is on stage?  What are they doing?
If the next scene uses the same set, then the opening direction merely needs to say what has changed between scenes (which should just involve characters and props: “Gerald is alone, seated on the chaise longue, reading a newspaper”).

And now you’re ready to make a scene.

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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.