Creative Writing Advice #11: Cut Unnecessary Description

05:45

Writingsecrets_c
Melissa
arrived at the office five minutes late, as usual. She opened the door and walked down the
hall. She put her laptop down on her
desk and sat in her chair. She
double-clicked on her Outlook folder, and brought up her cluttered to-do
list. Stage Directions Blog was written right at the top. Great. She’d been looking forward to this for a long time. But first, she had to do something about
breakfast. It was no good writing on an
empty stomach. She pulled her whole
wheat bagel out of her backpack and unwrapped it. She put a napkin in her lap. She tore off a chunk of bagel and put it in
her mouth. She chewed. She swallowed. Soon, the bagel was gone, and it was time to
write the blog entry. She opened
Microsoft Word (despite the program’s nightmarish incompatibility with Typepad’s
text editor), and put her hands on the keyboard. She began to type.



Cut!



You follow all that, readers? Or did you scan right down to the bottom,
thinking, “All right already with the napkin in your lap! Get to the good stuff!”



If you answered the latter, I don’t blame you. That paragraph is a living, breathing
specimen of a prose writer’s mortal enemy: Stage Directions.



Any time you narrate a physical action that gets a person
from point A to point B, you’re using Stage
Directions.
Of course, sometimes it’s
necessary to include some stage directions. But many writers – especially novices – use far too many stage
directions in their writing.



The term Stage
Directions
comes from – you guessed it – playwriting, where stage
directions are used to tell actors what they should do with their bodies during
a play. Some plays include more stage
directions than others. The most basic
stage directions provide cues only for when a character enters or exits the
stage. But plays never provide detailed
directions for every single action a character should make during the
play. Why not? Because actors and directors would revolt! “Don’t micromanage me!” they would
exclaim. “I can create my own
interpretation of my character’s actions! Give me some creative freedom!”



Your readers are sort of like these actors and
directors. If a person you’re writing
about goes from the kitchen table to the back door, you don’t need to tell your
readers about how they stood up, walked around the table, walked into the hall,
opened the door to the laundry room, etc. Your readers are perfectly capable of filling in the blanks with their
imaginations. In fact, the process of
doing this is one of the major pleasures of reading. Don’t rob your reader of that pleasure by micromanaging
his or her imagination.



How do you know what
stage directions to put in, and which to leave out? Practice, practice, practice. You might start by putting a lot of
unnecessary directions in, and then taking them out in editing. Wise, helpful readers can help you find
places in your writing where you use too many stage directions. As a general rule, you should include only
those physical actions which are absolutely necessary for a reader’s
comprehension of a scene; and those which
reveal something interesting about your character or his/her situation. If you’re still uncertain, pretend your characters
are capable of teleporting both through time and space. If you can teleport them somewhere without
totally confusing your reader, or missing something crucial in the story, don’t
describe the steps it would take for them to get there.



Now try this on for size:



Melissa arrived at the office five minutes late, as
usual. She glanced at her cluttered
to-do list: Stage Directions Blog. Great. She’d been looking forward to this for a long time. But first, she had to do something about
breakfast. It was no good writing on an
empty stomach. She tried to make her whole
wheat bagel last, but before she knew it, it was time to write the blog
entry. She opened Microsoft Word
(despite the program’s nightmarish incompatibility with Typepad’s text editor),
and began to type.



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