Archive | April, 2012

Managing Stage Directions In Your Novel

How do you handle “stage directions” when writing your novel? Is there one rule that always works, or is it more complicated than that?

Davalynn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have followed your blog and newsletter for several years and have learned a great deal. In your recent blog post about managing interior monologue, I locked in on one of your comments in the rewrite: “Eliminated the stage direction about walking across the room, which isnít all that interesting.”

Exactly. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on “stage direction.” I know some is necessary, but I often stumble over it in my own writing. So much can be assumed (as dangerous as that word is). As in, “She drove away.” Do we really need to say that she got in the car, fastened her seat belt, and checked the rear-view mirror? Sometimes we need a “beat” and one of those actions might fit.

Your thoughts?

Randy sez: Davalynn has been one my Loyal Blog Readers for a long time and it was nice to meet her a couple of years ago at a conference where I was teaching.

When I talk about “stage directions,” I mean those little bits of action that fill in the picture and show people coming onstage for a scene, incidental motions while onstage, and then exiting. They’re not essential to the story, but they fill in some detail. They also serve to reveal your character’s personality.

In my view, the purpose of stage directions is to flesh out the visuals of a scene. They function in the same way as description.

When do you show stage directions? How much do you show? When do you leave them out?

I think it all depends on the speed of the action.

In a high-intensity scene, you focus on the bright and shiny parts of the story — exploding helicopters, interrogation scenes, heaving bosoms — whatever it is that makes your reader’s heart rate zip. There’s just no room for stage directions here, so you show only essential actions.

In a low-intensity scene, you are giving your reader a chance to catch her breath. You need these scenes once in a while for contrast. To slow down the pace, you intentionally add in needless words. Stage direction, descriptions of scenery, exposition, longer passages of interior monologue — all of these will serve your purpose.

In a medium-intensity scene, you take a middle road between these two extremes.

Let the pace of each scene dictate the amount of stage direction and you won’t go far wrong.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

How To Do Interior Monologue In Fiction Writing

How do you correctly go inside the head of your lead character when writing a scene in your novel?

David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

As always, thanks for your time. The question on your last blog post about “Camera Management” brought to mind a similar question. How should one format a switch from POV camera angle to POV inner monologue? Do you put the inner monologue in to italics? Does it need it’s own stanza/paragraph/line? An example I’m having trouble with is below:

Paul walked across the room and picked the neatly organized pile of papers up off Todd’s desk. He shuffled them out of order and turned some upside down and backwards. That’ll get him (Italics? Add “he thought”?). Paul left the room with a sense of vindication.

This is a simple example, but I find that there are many sections of my writing where I face this dilemma. Ultimately, my question boils down to this, when writing in the different POVs, when should you follow inner monologue with “he/she thought”? When should it be in italics? How should it be formatted?

Randy sez: Handling interior monologue (or interior emotion) is like riding a bike. Once you get it, you’ve got it forever and can never have a problem with it again. But until you get it, the whole thing might seem awkward.

There are two kinds of interior monologue, direct and indirect.

Direct interior monologue tells you the exact thoughts of the character, using exactly the words he is thinking. Many writers prefer to write direct interior monologue using italics. (I’m in this camp.) The trend in recent years has been to eliminate the italics if it’s clear that these are the verbatim words going through the POV character’s mind.

Indirect interior monologue tells the approximate thoughts of the character, without giving the exact words he’s thinking. So far as I know, nobody ever writes these using italics.

Most novelists use both direct and indirect interior monologue, mixing them well, because it just feels better when you do so.

Now how do you insert interior monologue into a scene?

Follow these simple rules of thumb, and you’ll get it exactly right 95% of the time:

  • Each paragraph should focus on either the POV character for the scene or on anything else in the scene (one or more of the other characters, the setting, etc.).
  • If a paragraph focuses on the POV character, then you have four tools at your disposal, which you can mix and match as you like–Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, and Interior Emotion. If the paragraph goes on too long, it’s fine to break it up into multiple paragraphs. The Action and Dialogue should show what the POV character is doing or saying. The Interior Monologue and Interior Emotion should show what the POV character is thinking or feeling.
  • If a paragraph focuses on anything other than the POV character, then you have three tools, which you can again mix and match as you like–Action, Dialogue, and Sensory Description. The Action and Dialogue will show what non-POV characters do and say, but you should only show them if the POV character can actually see them or hear them. The Sensory Description will show anything that the POV character can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. However, you should NEVER bother to say that he is seeing them, hearing them, smelling them, tasting them, or touching them, because the reader knows who the POV character is, so it’s a waste of words to say so.

Now let’s look at David’s example. It’s pretty good as it stands but we can juice it up a bit to get more inside Paul’s skin.

Paul picked up the neatly organized pile of papers off Todd’s desk, shuffled them out of order and turned some upside down, some backwards. That’ll get the little dweebhead. Paul strode out of the room. A surge of adrenaline kicked through his veins and his feet felt light. If this didn’t vindicate him with the boss, nothing would.

If you compare David’s original to this one, you’ll see that I did the following:

  • Eliminated the stage direction about walking across the room, which isn’t all that interesting.
  • Joined the words “picked” and “up.”
  • Combined the action sentences into a single comma-separated list of actions.
  • Italicized the interior monologue and changed “him” to “the little dweebhead” which might be a term that Paul uses a lot, and which therefore feels like it’s his verbatim thoughts.
  • Juiced up the verb “left” to “strode”.
  • Changed the expository phrase “with a sense of vindication” into some interior emotion (the feelings of adrenaline in his veins and the lightness in his feet) plus some indirect interior monologue about vindicating Paul in the eyes of his boss.) I’m guessing here on who Paul wants the vindication from.

Interior monologue is one of the most powerful tools the fiction writer has. Mix it well with Action, Dialogue, and Interior Emotion and it’s hard to go wrong.

This has been a quick overview of interior monologue. My Loyal Blog Readers know that my pesky book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES has quite a bit more detail on how it’s done.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Managing the Camera While Writing Your Novel

How do you manage the “camera” when writing scenes in your novel? Or do you even have to think about that?

Dane posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, Do you recommend any sources that help to teach ‘camera’ patterns for staging scenes? For example, within 3rd person pov, starting the view from a distance about the environment, then moving closer in, and finally focusing on some important details? To illustrate, if we lock the pov into 3rd person, then we were to fasten a ‘very flexible’ rubberband to the camera. As Scenes and Sequels play out, the camera is ‘rubberbanding’ around to important ‘views’ that emphasize our intent. I know there are patterns of ‘far, medium, close,’ or the other way around, but it’s tough to find some clear information with recommendations to build tension and release it.
Any input would be great!

Randy sez: Managing the camera is something you have to worry about when creating a movie. The camera always has to be somewhere.

This is not such a big problem in writing a novel, because often you can just park the camera right behind the Point-of-View character’s eyes and you’re done. Then you don’t have to think about it anymore.

You don’t always do this, of course. You have other options:

You can write in Omniscient POV, in which case the camera takes a God’s-eye view of the world. That’s not very intimate, but it can sometimes make excellent sense.

You can also write in Third Person Objective POV, in which case you put the camera outside your focal character’s head and show him from the outside. Again, this isn’t very intimate, but it has the nice advantage that it makes the novel very cinematic. The disadvantage is that you can never get inside your focal character’s skin using Interior Monologue or Interior Emotion. These are key techniques that we novelists can use that the movie people can’t.

Most novelists, most of the time, use one of the POV choices that show the world from the inside of a character. These POV choices include Third Person, First Person, Second Person (very rarely, but it can be done), and the much-criticized Head-hopping POV.

Of these, the two most popular are Third Person and First Person. When you do these right, the camera is inside the POV character’s head, looking out through his eyes. But there’s not just a camera, there’s a microphone inside his head, listening through his ears. The reader sees what he sees, hears what he hears, smells what he smells, tastes what he tastes, touches what he touches, and feels what he emotes.

For more details on this, see my article on Writing the Perfect Scene, which gives a quick overview on the basic method of alternating between interior and exterior camera shots. If you want even more detail, I’ll refer you to chapters 10 and 15 of my book Writing Fiction for Dummies, where I explain how to write a scene and then how to edit it.

I sometimes hear this referred to as “Deep POV,” which always surprises me, because it makes it sound like the author is going above and beyond the call of duty by writing this way.

I don’t get that. Putting your reader inside your character’s skin is normal. This is the way fiction ought to be done for most books most of the time. This is your main advantage over the movie people. Use it.

Now back to Dane’s question on managing the camera. Yes, there are times when you’ll want to slip the camera out of the POV character’s head and move it around. You might show us the whole room, including the parts our POV character can’t see. You might zoom out further to show the whole setting. You might show the whole city from the 50,000 foot level. Or show the whole planet, or the whole galaxy.

None of those are very personal. Showing those may be crucial for connecting with your reader’s mind, but they don’t do much to connect with her heart. And readers read fiction for the emotive part. If you want facts, you read wikipedia. If you want feelings, you read a novel.

Dane, I wouldn’t stress too much on your camera technique, unless you’re doing screenplays. If you’re writing a novel, park that camera right behind the POV character’s eyes and don’t move it unless you absolutely have to.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Want To Take a Trip on the Titanic?

A friend of mine, Janice Thompson, is running a virtual Titanic cruise on Facebook to promote her forthcoming book about the Titanic. I ran into Janice at a writing conference this past weekend and she told me all about it.

The captain for this cruise is the great-great-niece of Edward Smith, who was the captain of the Titanic on its ill-fated first voyage.

If you want to join this virtual cruise, which debarks on April 10, 2012, you need to hurry, because it’ll all be over on April 15, 2012. Join the Queen of the Waves virtual cruise on Facebook!

You can choose to travel first class, second class, or third class. Or you can choose to sign up as a member of the crew. I don’t think you can choose to be Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet.

Have fun!