In my recent exploration of indie novels about horses, I’ve noticed a way that some of these authors could enliven their stories considerably: by making smarter use of stage business.
By stage business, I mean the interactions between characters and their environments, usually involving elements of setting and, in particular, props—the things they handle as they respond to each other.
Most of the authors I’m reading quite rightly use stage business to give readers a sense of setting, to give us a sense of “being there” in the scene, and to punctuate dialogue—for example, to break up a long speech. But this element can work a lot harder than it often does.
For example, let’s look at the possibilities offered by a fairly common scene: people sitting around a table drinking coffee. To frame the dialogue, we’re told, “He took a sip of his coffee.”
I guess he would, if he’s got a cup and it’s likely to get cold. So there’s really no information here.
But what if:
He waved the nearly full cup around so violently she was afraid he’d sling the contents onto the spotless white table cloth.
In his huge, clumsy hands, the mug looked as fragile as bone china.
He lifted the cup with both hands clutched around it, as if grateful for its feeble warmth.
Suddenly, “taking a sip” tells us something about the character and the situation he finds himself in.
Here’s another example.
She put on her cowboy hat. “Let’s go see what’s up in the corral.”
There’s a big difference between that bit of info and:
She snatched up a dusty cowboy hat stained and dinged with long use and smashed it onto her short black curls. “Let’s go see what’s up in the corral.”
Lady 2 promises a lot more action once we reach the corral than Lady 1. Now that hat talks!
True, it’s important to practice this strategy in moderation. Pacing a scene requires an author to balance forward momentum with information, no matter how exquisitely revealing that information seems to be. I once got slapped down pretty good over a character fidgeting with a paper clip through a long scene. As I recall it, my reader’s marginal comment was, “That paper clip is really getting on my nerves.”
In drafting, as is usually the best move, over-generate. Come up with stacks of double-duty stage-business gems. Then glean for the one best one, the one that really delivers the “telling detail.”
What are some of your best “stage business” lines? I’d love to hear!