Have you ever watched a couple of children play with Barbie Dolls? There’s quite an interesting and humorous thing that happens when the Barbies and Kens emerge. The children playing with them tend to narrate the motions, emotions, thoughts, discourse, and actions of their dolls—just like an author would with their characters. These children are so meticulous they often create their stage before they begin to narrate, and sometimes building that stage takes longer than the story they tell. Every time they pick up their dolls, they are crafting a story, inviting their friends to participate, and sharing that story with others. It’s quite a beautiful thing, really. I find observing these budding authors interesting because, in a way that is full of bright eyes and enthusiasm and the “varoom” of an imaginary Corvette revving, these little dreamers are expressing what we authors spend years relearning: the key elements that should be in a well-rounded scene.
But in the same manner that children can teach us how to craft a scene, they also give us examples of one of the biggest scene writing traps: over staging.
What’s staging? Simply put, it’s the elements that make up your scene and the way they are put together. It’s more than setting. It consists of your characters, their environment, the narrator, descriptions, action, and the unique voice of the author. Staging is a good thing in balance. But if it’s unbalanced, problems arise. When there is too much of a certain element is in a scene, it leads to a “feel” that is forced, contrived, and fake. This is an infection that generally begins with the characters, but it certainly doesn’t stop there. It spreads quickly and like a weed, inevitably sends roots deep into a story.
There are two aspects of the staging trap. The first is a lack of trust and a need to control every jot and tittle in a story. The second is caused by creative exhaustion, which can be a direct result of over directing the scenes in a novel. I will cover creative exhaustion in my next article on this subject. Both of these types of over staging can destroy a scene, but they do it in different ways.
I’d like you to think about those children playing with Barbie and Ken for a moment.
Barbie’s cruising down Rodeo Drive in her pink Corvette and everything is great. Her hair has never looked better, she hasn’t lost one of her high-heel pumps (yet), and even her halter top is staying Velcroed. Little does she know that she’s about to have a fender bender with Ken’s Jeep… BAM!
It is at this moment that one of the children jumps up and excitedly screeches, “Wait!”
We shall call this child, Suzy the Director. What Suzy hasn’t learned yet is directors work behind the scenes. Instead she has brought the story to a halt so she can step onto the stage and tell all the other children, and their dolls, what to do and how to do it. And there’s hell to pay if anyone steps out of line.
But what does Suzy’s propensity for instructing others have to do with over staging? Everything.
There are certain bad habits of story creation we carry forward into adulthood, and they tend to manifest in our writing. Because of this, there will come a time you are tempted to step out from behind the scenes and onto the stage of your book. I’m not referring to Clive Cussler-esque self-insertions, but rather the trap of over staging in the form of directoritis.
directoritis \də̇ˈrektə(r)-ī-təs\: The overwhelming need to micromanage every aspect of the readers’ experience in a story.
Think of your favorite play. If you were watching talented actors bring it to life, how would you feel if the director of the play hopped on stage and began directing the actors’ every movement and facial expression, adding to the setting, or explaining the meaning behind the characters’ actions? Would it be irritating? Would it make the play fall apart? Would you lose interest?
Of course you would. Now I want you to keep in mind the same principle is true for your book.
Just like in theater, you are assembling a cast to act out a plot upon a stage. But unlike theater, you the author are responsible for every detail: writing the play, creating the settings, the lighting (mood and tone), keeping your actors in character, and developing the costumes. You are responsible for bringing out the hidden depths in your actors and teasing forth new and interesting perspectives on old themes. You must imagine the play from beginning to end and conceptualize every scene. You have to make sure the elements work together seamlessly.
Problems can arise because of the multitude of hats an author wears when crafting a novel. You’ve invested a lot and now you have to trust people to understand your genius. It can be hard to let go.
How’s an author to find balance?
#1 Recognize what directoritis looks like
- Over description of scenes, characters, settings, costumes, etc.
- A combination of showing and telling to relate the same thing
- Relation of the same idea or theme in several different ways
- Repetitive perspectives of the same scene
- Unnecessary recaps
- Circular narrative
- Showing when telling would be better
- Scenes that are too busy
- Long-winded descriptions and exposition
- Unnecessary back story and flashbacks
- Insertion of a character who represents the author and is used to explain everything
- Action, dialogue, and even the plots and sub plots that feel unnatural, forced, or contrived or have little purpose
- Stating the obvious
- Characters feel like puppets or characters in a stop-action clay animation instead of three-dimensional people
#2 Change your attitude
Not every reader will pick up on all the nuances of your story, comprehend the deeper meaning in your plot, understand your themes, or relate to your characters in a way you feel is proper. It’s not the place of an author to force the reader to feel, relate, perceive, or understand in a specific way. A reader’s interaction with a book is unique. There is no right or wrong way to feel. It is your responsibility to tell the story in a clear and concise way and to let the cards fall where they do.
#3 Walk the fine line
There is a fine line between not enough detail and too much, just as there is an even finer line between necessary staging and writing in such a way that you come across as an author who doesn’t trust her readers.
Whatever you do, you want it to feel natural. The back story must be relevant to the existing story and so should any flashbacks. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t retell scenes through different perspectives, and don’t give readers the same information over and over again. Readers are smart. Use implication to your advantage and trust they will pick up on it. It’s okay to leave things to the readers’ imaginations. In fact, I recommend that you trust your readers enough to let them figure some things out for themselves. Finally, cut the fat. Make every word, action, expression, and piece of dialogue important. Don’t litter your scenes with mundane detail, unnecessary characters, or extraneous descriptions.
Over directing your book is like over steering your car. Doing such a thing won’t stop the journey, but it will make for an uncomfortable ride!
Next time I’ll be back to cover the result of over staging: creative exhaustion.
Now back to writing.