Crafting good quality stage directions can often be one of the trickiest parts of writing a screenplay. The directions need to be clear and concise but also need to engage the reader. With a number of do’s and don’ts, we’re providing the lowdown on writing stage directions in a screenplay.

Stage Directions: An Intro

So what are stage directions? Well, these are the parts of your screenplay that will help describe the action around the dialogue.

The etymology is of course from the theater, where ‘stage directions’ would be what is written in the playtext to provide information relevant to the staging of the play.

Broadly speaking, it would tell actors where to go, set designers what to design and directors what to focus on. Stage directions can be literal and functional in describing what is happening, or they can be more abstract and poetic in setting the scene. This is exemplified by probably the most famous stage direction of all time, Shakespeare’s ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ from The Winter’s Tale.

So whilst stage directions can be replaced by screen directions within a screenplay, the same basic rule applies.

The three key things your stage directions should focus on:

Describing the action happening in the scene

It’s worth noting that when it comes to stage directions, the rules can be flexible. Ultimately, if your script is clear in conveying the story and readable in doing so, then rules and traditions can be played with.

However, a solid set of guidelines is always useful to follow in making your script as effective as possible and making sure that beleaguered script readers are helped rather than hindered in comprehending your story.


Stage Directions in a Spec Script vs a Shooting Script

One of the key things to remember when you begin to write your screenplay is that in this instance, you’re a writer, not a director. By submitting a screenplay that you’ve written in the style of a shooting script; you’ll have wasted valuable time.

If your stage directions include every desired camera angle and every last close-up shot that you imagined, you’ll most likely end up irritating the production team. As a result of this, they’ll probably discard your added directions anyway.

You are watching: What do stage directions provide for the reader

Deciding how the screenplay will be shot is not your job. When writing stage directions, your job is to give a simple explanation of what appears on screen during that particular scene, including action, scenery and what the characters are doing. This is referred to as a spec script. Fingers crossed, when your screenplay is produced, it will be someone else’s job to add in camera angles and shot types.

Avoiding Exposition

Film is obviously, a visual medium, meaning that the audience will only be able to perceive what is physically in front of them. Your stage directions should only contain facts and information that can be physically filmed and recorded.

When writing your screenplay, it is important to keep the idea of, ‘show, don’t tell’, in mind. Overly expositional writing can feel clunky and amateur.

Take the following stage direction…

‘Her mouth dropped open, visibly shocked at what she saw. The smell was also horrendous.’

You don’t have to tell the reader she is visibly shocked; you can infer it by her reaction. It’s important that you don’t try and tell the audience what they can’t see. You can’t tell them that the smell was horrendous if they can’t physically see it.

Instead, add in a short description of the character wrinkling their nose in disgust. You have to show that the room smelt horrendous through the character. If the stage direction provides information about the character that can be visually represented (even if somewhat ambiguous), then it is valid.

How To: Transitions

When writing your screenplay, an important detail to pay attention to is the transitions that you use. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the industry-standard screenplay format before starting to add these elements.

Here’s a short guide to the most commonly used transitions and what their purpose is.

CUT TO: – This is the simplest, as well as most common, transition. This implies a change of scene over the course of one frame. DISSOLVE TO: – This transition indicates one scene fading out, as the next scene fades into place instantly after. It represents a passage of time, or simply used for dramatic effect. FADE IN: / FADE OUT: – These transitions are used at the beginning of the screenplay (FADE IN:) and at the end of the screenplay (FADE OUT:) to simply indicate the start and end of the story. FREEZE FRAME: – This one is fairly self-explanatory. Whatever scene is on the screen will momentarily pause, as if it were a photo. FLASH CUT TO: – A flash cut shows an extremely brief shot, designed to flash in front of the audience’s eyes. SMASH CUT TO: – A smash cut is completely unexpected. Horror films use it, cutting from an intense, scary scene, to a completely unrelated, calm scene. It should feel abrupt and unexpected. JUMP CUT TO: – This transition makes the subject appear to jump forward in time by breaking a single shot with a well-timed cut.

How To: Parentheses

An important part of formatting your screenplay is parentheses. They come hand in hand with the stage directions. Adjectives are put in parentheses, just below the characters name, to describe how the character speaks a line. Or it could be a verb that gives the actor an action to complete whilst speaking the line.

However, it’s important that you use them sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. It is the job of the actor to add emotion, tone and gestures to the performance. Use a parenthesis only when absolutely necessary, in a situation where the intention might be hard to read from the dialogue. Every line of dialogue within a scene with a parenthesis under it would look very jarring indeed.

Parentheses are used in this example from Titanic to follow the action of Jack taking off his shoe, whilst still speaking, as well as capturing Rose’s emotions.

It might be easy to miss that Rose is ‘perplexed’ by Jack’s question. A simple ‘No’ could be read in a number of different ways, all missing the point of her reaction to the question. By using a parenthesis, the intention becomes clear. Furthermore, there’s a dynamism to having Jack take off his shoe as he talks. The action continues through the dialogue, creating a feeling of movement.

In Summary

What are Stage Directions?

Stage directions are the parts of your script around your dialogue that help describe the action, setting and characters.

See more: Why Do Cats Bite Each Others Ears, Why Do Cats Groom Each Other And Then Fight

What is an Example of Stage Directions?

‘The man deals a deck of cards’ or ‘Katy enters the room’ are examples of stage directions. They describe the movements of the characters in the scene. Furthermore, setting description such as ‘the morning sunlight fills the room’ is also an example of stage direction.

How Do You Write Stage Directions in a Script?

You need to find a balance between efficiency and fluency in your stage directions. They need to paint a picture of the scene but in a way that doesn’t stop the flow and pace of the script. Try to always be immersive, plunging your characters and consequently the reader into the action, rather than writing from an objective point of view.

What did you think of this article? Share It, Like It, give it a rating, and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…

– Struggling with a script or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day… check out our range of script coverage services for writers & filmmakers.

This article was written by Isabelle Collingridge and edited by IS Staff.

Get *ALL* our FREE Resources

Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!