Stage Directions

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Stage Directions

Stage directions tell an actor how to execute the actions of the story. An example:
Sally nods. (Action.) She wants him to know she understands. (Stage direction.)
The consensus in Hollywood is that too many stage directions slow down the script reading and insult the actors' intelligence. The same goes for including camera angles in your script, a big no-no and a sign of a rank amateur. Camera angles amount to stage directions for the director. Remember, nobody likes being told how to do their job.
Writers often feel that stage directions get the emotions across expediently. If someone is speed-reading, the parenthetical will tell them Carol is feeling hurt. The reader will get it. Isn't that the point?
Yes. And no. The reader needs to be gently guided by the story itself, not pounded over the head by the writer. Similarly, the actor's motivation, the director's cues, and the designer's inspiration should all come from within the story. Film people are creative people. They want to fill out the details with their own imagination and creativity. A screenwriter's job is to remain evocative rather than absolute.
Let's look at an example from Tender Mercies, written by Horton Foote.
Mac, an alcoholic musician, wakes up alone in a motel room. Prior to abandoning him in a drunken heap, his companion went through Mac's jacket and stole his money. In this scene, Mac looks for his money to pay Rosa Lee, the owner of the motel:
He enters. He goes to a jacket lying on the floor. He searches the pockets of the jacket looking for money, but finds nothing. There is a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the dresser, and he goes to it and takes a swig and then goes back outside.
We are told what Mac does, but not how he does it. Mac doesn't stumble as he enters or search his pockets in a panic. We understand Mac intended to pay. His drinking from the bottle shows a need to steady himself, and we can assume he feels pretty bad. The actor (Robert Duvall) found his own facial expressions, timing, and gestures to communicate his character's emotions.
Focus on showing through events and actions rather than telling through stage directions. Then, if you feel a stage direction is necessary to emphasize or clarify a moment, go ahead and use it. If you do this judiciously, nobody will have a problem with it. But avoid camera angles at all costs. Simply show us what we need to see. Instead of CLOSE UP on a hand turning a key, write A hand turning a key.
Scaling back stage directions shows that you trust your story to do its job, and that you trust readers, actors, and directors to do theirs. The most confident writers use the fewest stage directions.



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