Don’t Stage and Block

DanceStepsI’m reticent to say “all,” but the vast majority of you are picturing each scene played out on the screen as you write it. Some may have the Hollywood stars already selected so when Spielberg asks you who’d you like to play the part… you’re prepared.

There’s a chasm between novels and screenplays, the discussion of which I’ll defer to another post. The short version of what I’d like you to take away from this presentation is that you don’t have to describe every movement of your characters. Doing so blocks the flow of action, makes the task of reading more cumbersome, and bulks up word count in ways that are not productive to quality writing.

There was a knock on the door. He stopped. The sound was repeated. He dropped his pen on his desk and walked the ten steps to the time-worn slab of oak. Twisting the knob he wondered who could be on the other side at this time of night. He felt the latch uncouple and pulled the door wide.
“Did you order a mushroom pepperoni?”
“No. I think that’s one flight up.”

 Assuming the interruption of whatever the character was doing is germane to the plot, we have two issues. There are always at least two issues.

First, the melodrama. Barring some Edgar Allen Poe rip-off, the distance to the door and its description is just over the top.

The second is the point of this post: If there’s a knock on the door, the character is likely to stop whatever he’s doing and shift his attention to the door. Without any reason not to, he’s going to go to the door and open it. All this is unnecessary staging, most of which would not appear even if this was a screenplay. As director, Steve will tell them how to move.

There was a knock on the door.
“It’s ten o’clock. Who the hell could that be?”
The knock came again.
Annoyed by the interruption, he flung the door open.
“Did you order a mushroom pepperoni?”
“No. I think that’s one flight up.”
He pulled a slice from the box and sunk his teeth in.
“Tell them this is the third time. They’re 301 not 201. This is my toll.”

Two words shorter, the revision eliminates the bad melodrama, is more active, and gives a reason the delivery boy got the apartment wrong. It provides a sense of the character’s state of mind the previous version did  not. And unless the old oak door is plot-necessary, why mention it? As Oscar Wilde said, “If there’s a gun on the table in Act I, someone better get shot in Act II.” Perhaps a heavy oak door will protect our pizza thief from the brutes upstairs who come down to enact revenge. If not, lose the description.


My personal demon is “turned.” As discussed elsewhere, I have the habit of having my characters turn every time someone speaks or anything happens.

“When did you get here?” Allan asked.
Betty turned to him. “An hour ago.”
“Hi guys,” Charlie said, entering the room.
Allan and Betty turned to him and greeted him in kind.
The scream from the hallway was surely Deborah.
They turned and ran toward the door.

I won’t rewrite that. You know how.

Eliminate all natural motions. If a character is sitting, you don’t have to have them stand up before leaving.

Alexander lounged in the wing back chair by the fire, unaware his lover’s husband had returned early.
The door burst open. The muzzle of a gun appeared.
Alexander disappeared into the fog that settled across the moors.

Here we assume that he got up, ran out of the room, fled to the front door, down the drive and away into the night. We didn’t need a step by step.

Review your writing. What stage direction do you include that is superfluous to the action?

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