When I began writing (I mean taking a full run at it) I found a book called Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and thought, What luck! I want to write bold, contemporary, stylish stuff. Then I realized it was a STYLE book, something like good ol' Strunk and White's Elements of Style and thought, oh poop, not that stodgy stuff.
Happily, Plotnik is doing something very different with the rules- hes having a ball with them. An educated, eloquent, literary ball. I read Spunk and Bite cover to cover (let's face it, not something I do with every book on writing) and have been suggesting it to every new writer I meet.
He's here to give us insight into the art of staging.
Meet the man:
Arthur Plotnik is a versatile author with a distinguished background in editing and publishing. Two of his works have been featured selections of the Book of the Month Club: The Elements of Editing (Macmillan/Longman), a standard reference through more than twenty printings, and The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words (Henry Holt / toExcel/ Barnes & Noble). Reviewers have consistently praised Plotnik's writing for its accuracy, style, and wit, often ranking it with Strunk & White in practicality.
His latest book, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style, was published November 15, 2005, by Random House Reference. Poet Billy Collins called it "A must for every writer's desk." Lauded by Booklist, Library Journal, and many others, it is among the bestselling new titleson language and writing. A trade paperback edition (with new study guide) was published in May 2007 with the subtitle, A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style.
Plotnik has written scores of magazine articles and columns, seven nonfiction books, and numerous (pseudonymous) paperback novels. He has appeared in publications ranging from La Prensa (Bolivia) to The New York Times. Long a columnist for The Writer magazine, he serves on its Editorial Board. He previously contributed to Britannica Book of English Usage and the "American English" column of American Way in-flight magazine.
Some thoughts on stage business accompanying dialogue by Arthur Plotnik, author of Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (Random House)
In dialogue, there are spoken words—and then there's all that other good stuff:
"I'm Holly," she said. Because she wanted no trace of an accent in her heaven, she had none.
I stared at her black hair. It was shiny like the promises in magazines. "How long have you been here," I asked.
I sat down on the swing next to her and twisted my body around and around to tie up the chains. Then I let go and spun until I stopped. "Do you like it here?" she asked. (From The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.)
Every storyteller invents stage business—the actions, gestures, and thoughts that surround dialogue and sometimes leak into the dialogue itself. Stage business–or "shtik" as I call it—gives dimensions of space, time, and texture to the linear output of talking heads. But most writers pay little attention to it as part of their craft, instead focusing on what the characters are saying and what happens to them.
Sometimes—rarely—powerful dialogue and plot can carry the show, with stage business merely a by-product. But imagine a theater director foregoing stage directions, allowing her actors to stand motionless and speak their lines like frozen manikins. Some might call it avant garde. To me it would be one step up from watching wallpaper fade.
Not to exploit the possibilities of stage business is to forfeit a powerful tool in both fiction and non-fiction. Not only does shtick give dimension, but it serves to break up what would be the monotony of long exchanges; it can advance the plot, reveal character, offer bits of information, and, of course, nuance what is being said.
"I love you," he told her.
She checked her cell phone. No messages. "Love you, too."
Stage business comes in a variety of parcels, and good writers tend to use a mix of them. Here are the main ones:
Speech tag: (Same sentence as the spoken words.) "Stop," he said, going into a show of coughing. "You’ll set off the smoke alarm."
Action tag: (In a separate sentence.) "Stop," he said. He went into a show of coughing.
Absolute phrase: (A modifying phrase with its own subject and participle.)"Stop," he said, the incense making him cough.
Thought tag: "This will relax you," she said, knowing he would start coughing as soon as she lit the incense.
Stage direction: They went through their usual ritual. She, lighting incense: "This will relax you." He, making a show of coughing: "Stop, or . . . "
Paint the picture
One of the reasons to add shtick to dialogue, of course, is to offer a picture of what's going on while people are conversing. But be sure the dialogue doesn't already give a clear picture of expression, gesture, and even action. You don't want to be redundant.
"I'm just lighting some incense—stop looking so annoyed."
"Who's annoyed? I'm simply moving the burner out to the porch. Look, I'm already kaff-kaff–coughing."
To preserve the force of good dialogue, stage directions must be used judiciously. Context and spoken words already tell the reader a great deal. Adding too much shtick can get melodramatic, look amateurish. Even bestselling authors sometimes overdo it:
"I think I'm falling in love with you, Maggie. I want you to be aware of that."
Maggie raised her eyes. They brimmed with tears. "I'm aware."
"And?" It was a tortured question.
Maggie shook her head. "Not now. I need time. Please understand."
"I have all the time in the world. I can wait. And I will."
"No one ever said that to me before." Maggie's smile was as golden as the last rays of the sun.
(From Texas Heat, by Fern Michaels)
As you might infer, you'll want to avoid stage business cliches, such as "her eyes twinkled." Common gestures such as "he sipped his coffee" or "she shrugged," however, are fine if not repeated too often. When most people smoked tobacco, the business of lighting, puffing, and discarding cigarettes provided a treasury of shtick. We've lost that prop and good riddance. But dining is still so rich in stage business ("she delved into her melon," writes John Fowles) that some authors make the meal more interesting than the dialogue.
The language of nonverbal expression constitutes a whole lexicon. The more of it you study, the more you’ll accompany the right word with the right gesture. Sources like How to Read a Person Like a Book (Gerard I. Nierenberg and Henry H. Calero) can be helpful. A good Web site is The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs, and Body Language Clues.”
For all that, you don't want to create shtick that gets in the way of dialogue--its drama, flow, and momentum. Stage business should be efficient and, in most cases, move in and out of the dialogue seamlessly.
Three suggested exercises:
1. Look for telling gestures, expressions, and postures when you watch people speaking. Note down the ones that pack information or that might seem fresh in writing. Don't forget that types of silence (e.g., prayer) or resistance to gesture can be just as powerful as action.
2 Share your observations or thoughts on stage business with this blog. Offer (for comment) some brief samples from your own writing.
3. Whatever fiction or creative nonfiction you happen to be reading, start paying attention to the stage business; note when it's done especially well or poorly. Soon you'll be a master of evaluating your own shtick.
(Copyright 2008, Arthur Plotnik)