Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Show & Don't Tell

The rhythm of a scene is very important. Not only in performance, but on the page, as well. When a scene is being read, either aloud by actors or alone by a director, nothing can gum up the pacing more than stage directions. This can even be harmful if scenes are being read to be considered for a show.

One thing I see a lot of in sketch writers just starting out is a tendency towards too many darn stage directions. Part of this comes from wanting to make sure everything is crystal clear. The problem is that it interrupts the flow and can actually make things muddier. The trick is to just suggest enough paint a picture in someone's imagination without going overboard.

New writers might overload their stage directions before the scene even begins. It might look something like this...

(Lights up on a greasy spoon diner. MARVE, the owner and chef, is out back throwing out grease when CHIP enters stage right dragging a small carry-on bag that has one of those extendable handles and wheels. Chip is in town on business and has just checked in at his motel, but the room isn't ready. So, he decides to get a cup of coffee. He is recently divorced. He stands next to a dessert carousel loaded with cakes and pies. MAYBELLE is the sixty year old waitress who is smoking a cigarette and reading the paper at the counter. Marve enters stage left and can't believe what he sees. He yells at Maybelle to wait on Chip.)

All we need is what the audience can see. Lights up. Who's on stage and what are they doing? Anything else that's important can come out in action and dialogue. We don't need Chip's life story. We don't need to know what Marve is doing right off the bat if we don't see him. Unless it's really important, we don't even need things like stage right and stage left. That's what directors are for.

Some writers, borrowing from film and television formats, will give too little.

(A restaurant. Day.)

I think you need a little bit more info otherwise, especially for someone listening to the scene being read, people will get lost. Or they'll get frustrated in having to keep shifting what they are envisioning. "A restaurant" could be a five star fancy plate place or a fast food joint. And it doesn't tell us if it's crowded or empty or who the heck is on stage.

Here's a tighter way to start that still helps readers and listeners without hindering them with too much information.

(Lights up on a greasy spoon diner. MAYBELLE, 60, in a waitress uniform, is alone smoking a cigarette and reading the paper at the counter. CHIP enters dragging a small carry-on bag. MARVE enters wiping his hands on his apron.)

I moved Maybelle to the first part because she would be the first thing the audience sees. She's already there when Chip enters. I also cut "Marve yells at Maybelle," because that will be the first line of dialogue.

When people are reading or listening to your sketch for the first time, they are looking for clues. They want to know what they absolutely need to know to get what's going on. Everything is important to them and they will try to remember it all. If you overload them with a lot of unnecessary information, it becomes a burden to enjoy the scene.

That's also true for overdoing action or acting notations.

MARVE (angrily)
Maybelle! This isn't the Automat. I don't pay you to smoke and read.

MAYBELLE (sarcastically)
You don't pay me to do much of anything. Consider this me doing extra.

(Marve gives Chip a "What are you going to do?" look. Chip shrugs and looks around the room. Marve pulls out a chair for Chip to sit in. Chip sits. Marve crosses to stage left to get Chip a menu and comes back and hands it to him. Chip looks it over.)

MAYBELLE (still reading at counter)
What will it be, Honey?

CHIP (distracted)
Just a cup of coffee.

(Marve gets Chip a cup of coffee.)

If this were being read out loud, I would probably instruct the actors not to wait for the person reading stage directions to say things they can convey, such as angrily. Unfortunately, the person reading your scene alone has to read them all and it's a bit much. It slows down the pacing and tells them things they probably already know. There's also a lot of stage action that actors would naturally do or that readers would envision.

Here's what that looks like tightened up.

Maybelle! This isn't the Automat. I don't pay you to smoke and read.

(Marve pulls out a chair for Chip to sit in.)

You don't pay me to do much of anything. Consider this me doing extra.

(Chip sits. Marve hands Chip a menu.)

MAYBELLE (still reading)
What will it be, Honey?

Just a cup of coffee.

(Marve gets Chip a cup of coffee.)

I broke up Marve's action, so Marve would pull the seat out right away as he's speaking and dialogue would cover his going for the menu.

Only include
sits, stands or crosses if they are really integral to what you are setting up. Otherwise, let the director and the actors do their jobs. Same goes for notations like; dryly, sarcastically, with eyes rolling, etc. Smart actors with a good director will figure this stuff out. In fact, if you saddle them with too much of this minutia, it might keep them from discovering something better. A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn't reveal something new about the character or forward the action, you can probably live without it.


Yesterday, I gleefully asked...

"U.S. Senator Larry Craig has been arrested for lewd conduct in a men's public bathroom. He claims his actions were misconstrued, that he what?"

50% said "Is claustrophobic and keeps the stall door open"
- Creepy, indeed, but if he's just tending to the business of waste elimination, it's only an offense to the eyes. So, no.

30% picked "Always drops his pants at the urinal"
- Man, nothing weirder than seeing a grown man do this, but as long as he's just shaking it off and not jerking it off, it's not a crime. Nope.

Nobody thought it was "Can't help making those moaning sounds"
- We all know that sometimes, it just happens. It's only when the yodeling starts that we need to be concerned.

The right answer, with 20%, is that the senator claims he "Just has a naturally wide stance"

According to The Idaho Statesman, the undercover cop at the Minnesota airport in the stall next to Craig, knew Craig was interested in some mano-y-mano hanky-panky when he started tapping his foot and moved it to touch his under the stall. Craig's defense is that he just has a wide stance. And a hankering for anonymous weenie.