The players in your stories have dialog, they have action, but have you given them stage business? Small gestures, little activities to help fill out your narrative? To keep the prose from being all talking heads and blocks of description? Shakespeare, for example, included some 3000 directions for stage business in his plays, including quite a few in the dialog. Here, from Romeo and Juliet, is a First Servant directing the others on their actions:
Away with the joint-stools, remove the
court-cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save
me a piece of marchpane; and, as thou lovest me, let
the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell.
Antony, and Potpan!
Easy to visualize the scene and the bustling servants, yes?
I received feedback fairly early in my efforts to get published, that my characters needed more stage business. Having daughters who were ‘drama kids’, I knew what the commenter meant. Actors don’t usually stand still on the stage in between actions, merely delivering speeches at the required moments. They fiddle with props or they have small activities, nothing too flashy, not distracting from the primary narrative, but “something to do”. A good actor will develop stage business based on the way he or she understands the character, although as with Shakespeare, the playwright may well have included certain specific instructions in the play.
Stage business can help portray details about your character. It’s another way to ‘show not tell’ important facts about what’s going on in the story. If you’ve written an angry character, is the anger only in the words? “I hate you,” he said angrily. Or does the person drum their fingers, snap a pencil in half, fan themselves furiously, ruffle the pages of a magazine without stopping to read a word, shove a chair aside, kick the dog, put their fist through the wall, slam the door?
Periodically I judge an informal flash fiction contest that an author friend of mine runs on her blog weekly. The last time I was involved, the winning entry was cleverly set in a kitchen, while the two characters were preparing a meal. The author did a wonderful job of weaving the dialog around the activity of slicing up lush vegetables for the meal, stirring sauces, measuring spices and other meal preparations that had the overall effect of making me feel like I was there in the kitchen (and hungry!). She showed how well the two people understood each other, moving around in the small space without colliding, working as a team, handing each other what was needed…the stage business complemented the emotional content of the conversation, for a completely satisfying scene.
Here’s an example from my Warrior of the Nile, where the stern warrior is forced to reconsider his opinion of the high born lady he’s guarding: When he brought the kit to her, she was scratching the cat’s chin. Smiling, she set the animal aside and unpacked her things. Leaning against the bulkhead, Khenet watched as she drew a sketch of the cat. He was amazed. In just a few strokes she captured the somewhat battered animal’s essence and added a border of whimsical fish, coloring them delicately.
“Do you like it?” she asked the cat, showing it to him. Yawning, the cat walked away. Lady Tiya laughed and set the papyrus aside. “Well, I’ll give it to the captain then, to thank him for the medicine.”
Khenet picked it up and examined the likeness more closely. Each fish had a different expression. “This is good.”
“You sound surprised.” Raising her eyebrows, Lady Tiya plucked another small blank papyrus from her box and smoothed it against her thigh.
Khenet handed her the sketch. “So many of the Theban noblewomen claim to draw but so few can actually combine two symbols together in any artistic style. If they even bother to actually touch paint to papyrus.” He bit his lips on further comments about the idle, useless women at court.
Picking up a fine-pointed brush, she dipped it into the flower shaped ink well and tilted her head. “Can I draw something for you?”
There’s a hilarious scene in Georgette Heyer’s Regency novel Unknown Ajax full of stage business, pretty much all intended to fool the excisemen into thinking they’d shot the wrong man. Richmond, the real culprit, pretends to drink, to play cards, to make an attempt at balancing the stopper of the decanter on its pointed end, and to exhibit signs of drunkenness to hide the fact that he’s injured. Sergeant Hoole, who doesn’t want to be in the midst of nobility, stumbles and wipes his brow, bumps into things and people, sidles to the wall to try to be out of the way and stutters. During the entire scene Anthea, the heroine, is doing all sorts of complicated first aid on her cousin Claud, who’s uninjured in reality. She treats him as if he’s been shot, aided by Polyphant the valet. With skillful sleight of hand, the duo employ bandages, slings, swabs, smelling salts, bowls of water…Claud one moment practically fainting, next breath clawing at the cushions in well faked pain…and during the entire scene the hero, Hugo, is talking to Lt. Ottershaw, misdirecting him so he won’t arrest young Richmond.
The scene is a mini farce and has stayed in my mind vividly all these years because pretty much every character in the story has stage business to perform to support the lie being told by Hugo.
I like this quote from actress Clare Danes: Psychology and acting are very closely linked. It’s just about studying people and how they work. It can be an incredible discipline and exercise.
I think writing is also about studying people and filling in the small details that fit the psychology, the “how they work” to add depth to the characters and the story.
Do you have any favorite bits of stage business?
Will an alien sleeping beauty awaken to save him, or destroy everyone around her?
When a Sectors Special Forces soldier and his team crash land on an alien planet, they’re taken captive and given a challenge–win at the violent ball game of sapiche and live. Lose, and they die, sending a mysterious, alien beauty to an even uglier fate. To survive, these soldiers must win the game and find a way to free the dangerous prisoner from her locked chamber.
Nate Reilly and his team are in deep trouble. Prisoners on a backward alien planet, they’re brought before an alien ‘goddess’, sleeping in her high tech seclusion. Nate is astonished when she awakes and establishes a psychic link with him. But her news is not good–he and his men must win a brutal challenge set by their captors, or they will die. She’ll give her aid, but in the end their courage and strength must win the contest.
Bithia sleeps in her chamber, as she has for thousands of years, since her own people unaccountably left her there. Viewed as a goddess by her captors, she must hide her ancient secrets to survive. But only the bravest of men may free her. Can she use her psychic powers to keep Nate and his men alive long enough to help her escape, or will her only hope of freedom die with them?
Bio: Best Selling Science Fiction & Paranormal Romance author and “SciFi Encounters” columnist for the USA Today Happily Ever After blog, Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories.
Three time winner of the SFR Galaxy Award, as well as a National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, Veronica is also the proud recipient of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal relating to her former day job, not her romances! She recently was honored to read the part of Star Trek Crew Woman in the audiobook production of Harlan Ellison’s “City On the Edge of Forever.”
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