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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Eliot

From Stage To Page

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

The biggest challenge I've faced in the transition from writing plays to writing novels is world building. My whole writing career up until this point was about honing snappy dialogue. I never had to grout between the tiles. The sketch world moves fast and there's no time for a bunch of fancy pants descriptions. Over many years, I conditioned myself to avoid writing every move and every intention and keep things moving. "Shakespeare had almost no stage direction," I'd tell myself. Not that I'm Shakespeare, but you get it.

My decision to pare down stage directions was sparked from staged and casual readings of my plays. I organized a monthly play reading series at Planet Ant Theatre called The Ant Farm. It afforded me a ton of opportunities to hear my work read. In the beginning I would get impatient with my overblown descriptions of blocking, scenery and the vibe in the room, waiting to hear the actual play. I saw the actors get a little weary of it at times as well.

But all of this starts a few years earlier. My husband and I were working on a cruise ship for The Second City, doing "Best of" sketch shows and improv sets and trying to fill the copious amounts of free time we had. I decided to write a play. Just go for it. So I penned a two act comedy. It was based on an idea I had when both my husband and I had one of our own friends in mind to house sit for us while we were gone. The play was about a friend of the bride and friend of the groom who can't stand one another, being forced to house sit together while their friends are on their honeymoon. Now I haven't gone back to read this thing in several years, but I've had two readings with actor friends and they were both pretty grim affairs. The first was on the ship and the minute we were done, nobody said a word. Complete silence. Not one comment, positive or negative. It was like someone had died and nobody wanted to break it to me. The second reading was back home a few years later.

I decided to give His and Hers another shot. I pulled a few of the actors from a play of mine that had just run at Planet Ant and we sat around and read it. I had started the evening telling the story of the silent awkwardness on the ship. Probably not a great preamble to a read, but I can't resist a good story. So when it was done, it seemed like the actors really wanted to give feedback, solely to avoid another silence. I decided the only way I'd improve was to stop waiting for them to say something nice that made me happy, and really listen. One of the actors said, "I kinda think there's a lot of stage direction." And that was it.

It was one of those times as a newbie writer where you stop telling yourself things like "if they'd only LISTEN to the WORDS they'd laugh their asses off!" and really take in a piece of constructive criticism. After that it was almost a game for me. I tried harder and harder with each successive work to shorten my stage direction more. The great reinforcer was that in producing works, I realized I was leaving room for the director and actors to make choices and discoveries, rather than describing the dollhouse in my head.

So now, after twelve or so years, I need to deprogram. Where I once would have written "She slaps him". I now have to say "His insult shot fiery rage through her entire body. Her arm snapped back, as though pulled by an invisible slingshot. Her hand launched at his face, connecting with a sharp stinging clap," and so forth. It's an area where my self-doubt really surges. I almost feel like I'm playing the character of an author trying to sound like a great author. It's wordy and guesswork, but every once in a while I read a passage and smile.

The strangest feeling is that although I've been a writer for most of my adult life, this shift in medium and genre is a form of starting over. The awkward, self-conscious feeling of faking it is something I haven't felt in a couple of decades. It's unfamiliar and scary, but also exhilarating. It's fun to discover a new platform for the many many people that live in my head. And it's great to try something new in your 40's. I find myself listening a lot more, doing my homework a lot more, and sticking my foot in my mouth a lot less.

So I'm off to edit my newest manuscript. I'm in the honeymoon phase with this one. I still love it. Just have to read through to see if there's anything other than dialogue on those pages!

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