In fiction, characters need to move about. They might be moving from one city to another, from uptown to downtown, or across the room. Just like people in the real world, characters reach for things, look around, and smile at those around them. Just as a real person might need to get across town to go to work, fictional characters need to be active to accomplish things, to drive the story forward.
The difference is that, in the real world, we don’t have to listen to a blow-by-blow of this activity. When my husband goes into the kitchen to get a drink, he doesn’t narrate it: “Mike gets up off the sofa and walks slowly to the kitchen. He opens the fridge, pulls out a Coke, and pops open the top. He takes a long swig before returning to the living room.” It would get annoying quickly if he did. But I see this type of narration all the time in the books I edit. Characters are forever reaching and shrugging and glancing and lifting.
Some of this action is necessary. If you have your character sleeping in one paragraph and eating breakfast in the next, you’ll probably want to tell readers she got out of bed. But so often, authors get carried away with “stage directions,” and this can really slow down the pacing of a scene. Let’s look at two examples of the sleeping character mentioned above.
“The alarm went off and Ella reached over and turned it off. She stretched, got out of bed, walked across the room, and opened the bedroom door. She shuffled into the kitchen and took a bowl down from the cupboard. She grabbed the cereal from the pantry and poured herself a bowl.”
What’s wrong with that, you might ask. That’s probably exactly what Ella did. This is true, but how much of this action is important? If the main point of this paragraph is to get Ella from the bedroom to the kitchen, presumably because something important to the story or to Ella’s character development is going to happen there, why dillydally? We could get her there just as easily this way:
“The alarm went off and Ella dragged herself out of bed and into the kitchen. Eyes still half-closed, she poured a bowl of cereal.”
This gets Ella where she needs to be without boring readers. And readers can figure out that she turned off the alarm and retrieved a bowl from the cupboard without us specifically telling them it happened. Readers are smart that way.
This is especially important in fast-paced scenes. If your character is racing across town to save her husband from the bad guys, the last thing you want is to slow down the pacing by telling us she opened the car door, got in the seat, put the key in the ignition, turned it, and then drove off. Just let her get on her way! (On the other hand, don’t let her get there too quickly or your readers won’t have a reason to worry that she might not make it in time. You can use some stage direction here to increase tension, but choose it wisely. There’s a big difference between showing her slamming her hand on the steering wheel when she gets behind a slow car and showing her adjusting the air conditioner.)
In scenes with a purposefully slower pace, you can provide more detail to readers, but even then, don’t give details for the sake of giving details. Make sure they count. For instance, if your protagonist is a neat freak, you might show him straightening a book on the shelf and lining the pens up neatly in a row. These little actions might not propel the plot forward, but they tell us something important about your character, so it is worth slowing things down a bit. Just make sure you are doing it in a scene that is intentionally slower-paced.
Some amount of stage direction is necessary to avoid confusing readers and to provide some detail about how your characters interact with their environment. But err on the side of caution and use these details judiciously, choosing actions that provide needed information about what your character is doing, give readers valuable insight to their character, or move the story forward in some way.