Stage directions: who’s doing what?

Characters do stuff and move about. If we don’t convey this to the reader, our character, for example Sam, might as well be a statue. However, the reader isn’t stupid; assume the reader can imagine Sam climbing out of a car without going through all the steps of releasing the seat belt, grasping the door handle, pulling the handle, pushing the door open with her elbow, swinging her legs round, putting her feet on the ground, standing up while making sure she doesn’t bang her head on the edge of the door frame, turning back to the door and swinging it shut. Whoo, that was tedious!

Instead of dwelling on mundane actions, which slow the pace and lose tension, dwell on the exciting moments, the tension, the suspense, emotions. I’d much rather read about what happened after Sam got out of the car than her act of getting out of the car. The only reason to mention these small details is if something happens at that moment. Perhaps Sam had just put her hand on the door handle when she saw a silhouette of someone lurking in the bushes. I’d want to read on to find out what happens next, wouldn’t you?

Eye and facial movements

Eye movements are particularly prone to slowing down the prose – and therefore the action. Do you always notice where you’re looking or how your eyes move around? Adding eye movements, especially of the point of view character, can bring self-awareness to the character’s narrative that can seem a bit off to the reader. Furthermore, it’s not necessary to know where a character is looking all the time, but on the odd occasion where it adds something to the story, it’s worth considering whether making eye contact, returning someone’s gaze or swivelling the character’s eyes in a particular direction might be better off as a more straightforward stage direction.

Compare examples (1) and (2).

  1. Nana’s gaze moved towards Sam.
  2. Nana’s eyes swam towards Sam.

Which one do you prefer and why? Do you prefer (1), which tells us nothing further about Nana, or do you prefer (2), which tells us that Nana’s eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were?

Regarding facial expressions, the act of frowning is often given as someone, let’s say Sam, having furrowed brows. If we’re deep in Sam’s psyche, we can’t see Sam’s face because she can’t, unless she’s looking in a mirror. On another occasion, she might feel her face burn or prickle and realise she might be blushing. Will anyone notice? Will she feel more embarrassed? What a vicious circle. Poor Sam.

Vague movements

Some verbs show the reader exactly what the character is doing, whereas some verbs are vague. It’s not a bad thing necessarily to use a vague verb, but it can be better to use something more precise to avoid jarring the reader while they try to imagine how the character actually moved. Again, compare examples (1) and (2), above.

Impossible actions

Sometimes, the narrative might have Sam do something, but it’s not actually possible. For example, if Sam is sitting on an armchair in the far corner of the room, she can’t reach the cup of tea that Phil has put on the coffee table in the centre of the room on the other side of the sofa. Phil can’t take one of the biscuits from the plate Dan is holding if either one is walking away from the other.

Imagine – or, even better, act out – the movements that your characters make and see how possible they are. This might be difficult if your character has superpowers that you don’t have.

Actions while others are speaking

Sometimes, Sam talks to Phil. What does Phil do while Sam is talking? Does he stand around like a tin of milk or does he pace round the room? Drink a cup of tea? Pick his nose?

It’s a good idea to break up Sam’s lengthy speeches with a brief stage direction (also known as an action beat) to indicate what she or Phil is doing while she blethers on. People can find a solid block of text with no breaks off-putting; adding stage directions can help with this.

Balancing the detail

Dwelling on the mundane, as mentioned above, drags out the narrative and risks boring the reader to tears. If you bore your reader, they’ll put the book down and find another book to read – and it’s not likely to be one of yours.

Go through your narrative and delete all the bits that describe a character’s movements in excruciating detail, the bits that you, as a reader, would skip over in another book, as Leonard 2001 advises in his tenth rule for writing.

Next, find all the pieces where the stakes are raised and the tension mounts. This is what will keep the reader turning those pages, desperate to find out what happens next. Keep these in, keep them sharp and snappy. How does Sam feel about what’s going on? What are her fears, her hopes? How is she going to get herself out of this mess? This is where we find out Sam’s true character complete with strengths and weakness, and that’s what makes the reader like the character.

Be descriptive

Use your imagination when describing actions. Is there a better way to say Sam got out of the car slowly? Maybe she swung one leg at a time onto the ground. Maybe she heaved herself up, pulling on the steering wheel and the door for support. It sounds to me like Sam isn’t keen on going where she has to go. Add a grimace or a groan to put Sam in pain instead.

Avoid adverbs when writing stage directions, and your characters will have a greater, and more interesting, range of movement.


  • Leonard, Elmore 2001 Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing Harper Collins