A Writer's Stage Presence

Kyle Bennett  
Stage presence isn't just for the stage.

I think most people understand stage presence in a performer like an actor or musician. It's some hard to define quality, a vibe or an aura that makes it so you can't resist looking at them when they are up there on stage. They command the stage, they own it. They give the feeling that they have the entire thing, including the audience, under complete control and have accounted for every detail. 

It's a calm, quiet confidence that comes through whether the performance is loud and frantic or soft and reserved. It's also a kind of aloofness that stops short of being smug or condescending. It conveys the attitude that the performer is doing this because they believe in it, that they want you to enjoy it, but that is not why they are there. I don't think it can be faked - many try - but it probably can be learned.  

My go-to example of a singer's stage presence is Gnarls Barkley performing "Crazy" on Letterman (it's on YouTube). Ceelo has that calm confidence and control even though he and the whole band are dressed in ridiculous schoolboy/girl uniforms. That contradiction seems to enhance it, whereas, from a less confident and talented performer, it would seem like a gimmick.  

Writers can have it too. I think it is a really important thing. It means I can relax into a book or story, get immersed in it, and know that I will come out the other side with a rewarding experience,

For writers, my standard is Neal Stephenson. When he started his breakthrough novel, "Snow Crash", by announcing that the main character was named "Hiro Protagonist", he made it feel like a dare, a challenge. He dares the reader to find this too silly, too over the top to continue. We're going for a ride, a serious ride, so either strap in or get off the train right now. I couldn't put it down. 

The writers that do this well bring something more than just a story to their work. They bring trust and confidence to the reader. The reader trusts that the ride they're about to take will be worth the time and effort and that they are in good hands. 

Some musicians, actors, and other performers are just so good that they can succeed without it, but the ones that have it succeed better. Same with writers. Some writers are very good without this stage presence and are quite successful, but the ones that have it are the ones that readers return to again and again. 

I wish I knew, as a writer, how to tell you how to write with stage presence. I can't. But I can tell you some things I've gleaned as a reader from the writers that I think do it well. 

First and foremost, write with confidence. That doesn't mean bluster, cockiness, or throwing out lots of fancy words and sentence structures. It's a quiet confidence, writing that conveys that you know what you are doing, that the reader can trust you to lead him through this journey you're about to embark on. Make the reader believe that you believe in what you are saying. That belief, that confidence, will rub off on your readers. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say, and say it unapologetically. Don't hedge. Don't hesitate and add unnecessary qualifiers. Don't soften statements with words and phrases like "a little bit" or "kind of". It is tempting as a writer to subtly apologize to the reader, or to try to justify a scene or event to the reader. Not in so many words, but in subtle ways such as over-describing a scene or setting or adding gratuitous back-story to a passage or an action. Don't. Instead... 

Trust the reader. Trust is a two-way street. Trust that the reader knows what they want, and may decide that this is not for them. Trust that the readers who stick with it will be invested and willing to work with you to follow and understand what you have to say. Trust that they are capable of putting in that extra bit of intellectual work, to read between the lines, to make your story come alive in their mind. Trust that they want to be led through your story, but they don't need to be led by the hand and coddled. Lead, and trust that they will follow, or that they won't

Make every word count. This doesn't mean you have to write sparse, hyper-efficient prose. Your prose can be lush and rich, it can be sharp and terse, it can even be purple. But whatever it is, know why it is that. Know what every word, every sentence, every paragraph, and every scene does for your story and characters. Try to make each of those do double or triple duty. A passage that moves the plot can also reveal something about the character, lay some groundwork for future scenes, provide an insight to the character or to the reader, or resolve a prior conflict. Or whatever else you can think of. 

Know what you're writing. Writers are often told to "write what you know", but that isn't always possible, and it isn't always good advice. Either way, your writing will be far better if you know things about your subject, whether it is a real-life place or person, a job or activity, or any other context your story takes place in, that readers might not know. If you don't already know, do research. Learn, first hand if possible, second hand otherwise, what it is like to be in that place, situation, or activity. Learn the lingo, learn the little trivial details that make it feel real and well-rounded, like a good character is. Not every detail has to find its way into your work, but if it is in your head while you are writing, your writing will feel richer and more sure-handed.  

Know the rules of good writing so that you can deliberately break them. The rules are there for a reason, and in general, they make writing better. But sometimes they get in the way. Sometimes, they dilute what you mean to say, or force you to break the rhythm of how you're saying it. So break them, even these "rules", but know that you are doing it and why you are doing it. 

It is easy to say that this is a quality that a writer just has or does not have, an ethereal talent that is there from the start. But I think it is a skill, one that can be learned. Yes, some writers naturally have it, but even those that don't can benefit from being more aware of it and learning the skill of it. 

Do you know any writers that have this quiet confidence, this stage presence? Do you think you have it, that it shows in your writing?  




19+ Comments


Best CC blog post I’ve seen. Very sound advice. The constant pandering that so many advise may be the ticket to commercial success, but it makes for pedestrian writing. Stephenson is an excellent example of a writer who simply blasts without regard for what you think of him or whether you understand what he’s saying, and the result is gorgeous on every level.

Feb-19 at 00:47


Thank you. A great and thought provoking piece.

Having said that I think ‘presence’ is a dangerous sort of concept in the wrong hands. I think it’s one of those things that READERS need to decide that your writing has, if you decide you have it yourself you might end up convincing yourself your shit doesn’t stink when it does.

When reading about this term I kept thinking of one writer over and above others that exemplifies the idea IMO, Cormac McCarthy. Every sentence is just assured and you can bet your house on the whole entire thing from the off.

Feb-19 at 01:09


Great post. Yeah, I think trust is the key element here. That feeling of presence is, essentially, engendering a feeling in the reader that you’re going to pull this off (and aren’t wasting their time). I don’t think it’s confidence exactly, because I’ve known some very confident, very subpar writers. It’s something dynamic and collaborative that happens within that unspoken contract between creator and audience.

Feb-19 at 01:39


Say what you mean, mean what you say, and say it unapologetically.

‘Stage Presence’, as a writer. A great way to express it.

Excellent advice throughout. Thanks!

Feb-19 at 01:40


Great advice here, especially about trusting readers and making every word purposeful. I’ve heard the trust thing before, but I seem to have forgotten it in my recent writing. I needed this.

Feb-19 at 01:54


I appreciate the thought you put into your post. However, in my opinion most of these suggestions simply fall under the categories of either ‘good writing’ or ‘effective editing’. As a stage performer myself, my opinion of presence is different. Many well-respected and successful musical artists (since you’ve used that medium as an example) lack stage presence.

Perhaps this post is meant as encouragement to writers who find themselves too shy to truly express themselves. My concern is that, as you mentioned, many writers who are already overconfident may now feel empowered to be more audaciously disappointing. Neither is stage presence. I don’t find the term ‘stage presence’ relevant for writers, sorry. Take care.

Feb-19 at 01:59


This is a wonderful post and the advice is excellent. I’ve heard what you describe as stage presence referred to elsewhere as “Author’s Authority” - but it’s the same thing.

As others have said - it’s really all about trust. The ability to trust your reader but even more so in my opinion it’s about the ability of the reader to trust you as an author. That what you write will serve their desire for a story, and that you will deliver.

Feb-20 at 05:24


That stage presence can only come with experience. It is born of a confidence in their writing abilty proven over time. Almost impossible for an inexperienced writer to exhibit.

And all great writers ooze it. But i doubt they oozed it overnight.

Feb-20 at 06:36


Excellent blog. What you say about trust being a two-way street is so true. It starts with good line editing. Catching a mistake in the first few pages makes me think the writer doesn’t know what they are doing, which is a shame because the story could actually be really good. Going the other way, as a reader I don’t want every bit of detail explained to me. The writer and reader have to meet in the middle. That’s the sweet spot.

Feb-20 at 12:46


Since it can’t apply to writing, can you define what ‘Stage Presence’ is?

Feb-20 at 17:42


My opinion is that stage presence is physical and has one, possibly two components: 1) the ability to command the audience reaction with the physical body, and 2) to communicate with other performers (if any) using body language. In other words, using the physical form, literally on stage to influence the performance in a positive way. The only way a writer could achieve this, is to read their own book aloud, to a live audience. While anyone can walk away at any time, it’s notable that on stage the performer controls the timing and environment of the delivery, whereas a book is different – the reader can put it down and pick it back up at their discretion, wherever they like.

Feb-20 at 17:44


I agree with you. I think it’s a rather imperfect analogy for “writer’s voice”—the thrust of the article is good, but “stage presence” simply isn’t the right comparison. Besides, it’s generally accepted that the performer of a written work is not the author, but the reader.

Feb-20 at 18:15


Maybe it isn’t the best term. But there has to be some kind of term for that ‘it’ factor that assures you you are in a safe pair of hands when you are reading? Other than just ‘good writing’ of course.

I think this concept like a lot of other (usually unhelpful or potentially dangerous ) ones seem to appeal to aspiring writers because for some reason a whole bunch of them seem to be introverts who wish they were rock stars.

It’s kinda the same well spring from which this notion of being a ‘pantser’ comes from. And these other romantic ideas about knocking out entire novels in a six day blur of coffee and wild inspiration.

Some people can do things like that because they are good writers, they are not good writers because they do things like that.

For the record I think you are correct in that fiction writing has next to nothing in common with stage performance and concepts related to inspiration and flow aren’t readily applicable.

Also as I mentioned above I think while the idea is an interesting one I don’t think writers ought to worry too much about if they do or don’t have ‘presence’ and certainly shouldn’t presume that they do and that that’s some sort of excuse for not doing something sensible that will allow them to continue to improve exponentially one word at a time.

Feb-20 at 18:24


Great blog. Just to share my experience, some 15-18 years ago I had the privilege to attend an author’s meeting with Neil Gaiman. It was a small venue with maybe a couple hundred people, but the way Neil spoke, it enthralled everyone in the audience. I remember thinking this was a man passionate about telling his stories and talking about his stories. He had that charming stage presence throughout the meeting, calm and confident, and I don’t even like Neil Gaiman’s prose (I was just a +1 to my wife).

On the other end of this spectrum was this lady who translated his works into Polish. Her presentation came before Neil’s, and then she translated the whole meeting. She was dreadfully dreary. At times, I felt like she didn’t know what she was talking about. Now I know she was simply a mediocre translator and got the job simply because she was the wife of a Polish writer who was friends with the Polish publisher, but her stage presence was nonexistent.

Just like the blog says, a lot of the stage presence comes from both knowing what you’re doing and being passionate about it.

Feb-20 at 18:47



Writing with self assurance.

Every great writer has it, but none of them started out with it.

Cautionary note - Many have it in terms of immersive prose, but still disappoint in terms of story. That is my personal experience. Obviously they dont disappoint others because they sell a lot of books.

Feb-20 at 18:52


I disagree. One of my favourite books is a collection of Dylan Thomas’ correspondence. The letters he wrote as a teenager to the girl he was crushing on absolutely drip with confidence in his abilities, and the prose itself backs it up. The man was born with swagger. Or look at Arthur Rimbaud, one of the most influential poets to ever live, who stopped writing at age 20. A contemporary described him as “a meteor, lit by no other reason than his presence.” Sounds like swagger to me. (Poets, I think, have it a little more than other writers.)

Some people take decades to find it—others simply have it.

Feb-20 at 19:13


And yet, I bet those letters werent the first thing he wrote.

some have had these dreams of being a novelist since they could formulate words.

We didnt see their teething process.

I dont doubt some have more aptitude ( or desire, which I think feeds aptitude ) But I doubt any picked up a pen never having written before and just flowed.

it is a akin to a kid getting on a bicycle and mastering it first try. How many do that? I dont see writing as being any different. Wobble wobble crash. Wobble wobble I think I’m getting the hang of… Crash.
Thise who persist get it. Most persist with learning to ride a bike. Most dont when it comes to writing.
Then having mastered the basics of bicycling the question is where do you want to take it. Do you have the appetitie, the hunger, the bravery to be an Olympian, a tour de france participant? Because stamina can be built. Muscles can be built. And dedication comes from desire. Do you have the desire to be a Tour de France winner? A desire greater than the other contestants?
Or do you prefer casual bikes rides in the countryside? Or did you learn to cycle simply as a means of transport. Not interested in the cycling art beyond a means to an end?

Same thing with writing. It is only us as authors who decide how far we go or not, for whatever reason—many likely unrelated to the art of writing, IMHO.
I dont believe there is any element of writing that cannot be learned and mastered with the appropriate will.
But that is simply my belief. I could also be deluded. But I don’t think so.

The likes of Dylan Thomas probably had eyes on winning his Tour de France from his first pedal. Maybe even before he even attempted to get on the bike.

Feb-20 at 19:19


Well jeez, okay, I’m not saying that a baby has the swagger of a great author. But if you’re a published legend at eighteen I think it’s safe to say there’s some natural talent there.

Dylan Thomas at 18:

Obviously one is born before one can be an artist, but after that it doesn’t matter what happens. The artistic consciousness is there or it isn’t.

A bonus word of advice from the same letter:

Why not, just for a few times, put a sheet of paper in front of you, & without thinking twice, write half or a quarter or all of a short story. Don’t begin with a polished idea in which every incident is fixed in your mind… Write, write, regardless of everything. Your present method of story writing—the draft after draft, the interminable going-over-again, can be compared to the method of the marksman who spends weeks & weeks polishing his rifle, weeks & weeks cleaning it, weeks & weeks getting the exact ammunition for it, weeks & weeks deciding on a target, weeks & weeks weighing his rifle in his hand, weeks & weeks weighing it in a different way, &, at the end of the year, having a pop at the bull’s eye. Why not, for a change, fire off round after round of ammunition from any old gun you can get hold of. You’ll miss hundreds of times, but you’re bound to get the bull’s eye a lot of times, too.

(Letter to Trevor Hughes, February 1933)

Feb-20 at 19:47


I think if you are published at 18 it is safe to say you started early.

That letter’s advises the scattergun approach to writing. Not the most expediant approach based on what I have learned so far.

I dont need hundreds of scattered unfinished half baked projects.

I see authors who have been using the scattergun approach for decades, still not hitting the target.

I see others who practise nailing that first shot and honing and streamlining their skills and taking aim with precision and boom.

Feb-20 at 19:57
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