Stage Directing Characters

July 7, 2010

Being a writer is so much more than just stringing a bunch of words together. You have to be a therapist in order to understand your characters motivations, a costume designer to deck them out right in proper historical garb, an architect to achieve the correct balance and proportion to your plot, a playwright with an ear for dialogue …and, it appears, a stage director.

Take my latest scene (which I am STILL fussing over). It’s where Mr. Elliot and my heroine are alone together and have a conversation. He’s supposed to be flirtatious, while she’s more stand-offish but also pleased and amused…

I’ve got the dialogue down…but my question is: what do they do in the meantime? He’s leaning against a tree twirling a piece of grass in his fingers. But he keeps smiling and laughing too much. It’s ridiculous. She, meanwhile, keeps squinting at the view, then glancing at him sideways, squinting at the view, then glancing at him sideways…I’m starting to get eye-ball strain in sympathy…

All this non-verbal communication is just as important to this scene as the dialogue. How they act indicates their inner emotional states.

Unfortunately, my stage director is at a bit of a loss here. So I just keep getting my character/actors to try different movements. “Ok, Mr. Elliot, take a few steps closer to her. Give her a hungry look. And you, Mrs. Honeychurch, why don’t you look over your shoulder at him? Purse your lips a little, hmm? I said ‘a little’! You look like you just swallowed a spoiled oyster! Aw, forget it! It’s not working! Break for lunch!”

I guess I just have to keep trying until I get it right! Thank god Angela Ackerman has created an Emotions Thesaurus to help out frustrated writers like me (it’s on the side bar of her website). Thank you, Angela!

(And for an additional (& funny) look at the frustrations of writing non-verbal communication check out Roni Griffin’s ‘Enough With The Eyebrows’ )


  1. Hi Julie! Thanks so much for mentioning my Emotion Thesaurus! This exact post is why I and another writer decided to create it. Showing emotion through action is one area that it’s difficult to think outside the box of eye rolling, shrugging, smiling, etc and so we thought we’d help out a bit!

    Have a great week.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. Thanks for linking to me! I love the cartoon. I’ve so done that to my husband. He’s stopped giving me strange looks when I ask him bizarre things like–if you were kissing me and had one hand on the back of my neck, where would your other hand naturally rest? lol.

  3. You may have written your own solution here: you need some actors! Get a couple of people to read the dialog you’ve written and give them the broad stage directions only. Explain their thought processes to each then let them have at it (rather than saying “show me an expression of frustration), reading the lines with you watching closely to see the little actions they automatically incorporate (don’t forget to watch the hands and feet!).

    Obviously newbies to acting will have a harder time with this but your local amateur theater troupe might enjoy it as an exercise and help you out.

    This is even more fun if you give the players the internal info separately. 😉

    And when in doubt, use props (handkerchiefs, parasols, ribbons, hats, canes etc) or move/go for a walk (your characters I mean).

    Good luck!

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