Someone recently asked me how acting influenced my writing after they noticed I listed drama in my background on my website bio. I was just glad the question wasn’t about the time I had to wear tights in a play. Gloss over that. Or the time I had to tap dance to some Gershwin tunes in a high school musical and, needless to say, I’m not a tap dancer. Let’s just tap past that. Or the time I fell on stage during a scene and received a concussion (not once but twice—some actors have grace and style; apparently, I have an abundance of neither). Hang head in disgrace. No, thankfully the question was only about acting in general, not about anything specific in my infamous repertoire. Raise head in hope.
The question got me thinking: how was acting similar to being an author and how can authors relate to actors? These three thoughts came to mind:
1) Actors and authors must appreciate the nuances of dialogue.
Actors have a keen ear for dialogue. Intonation, diction, beats, and rhythm of speech. They have to because they must memorize hundreds of lines of dialogue that are marked up with pen indicating where to pause, where to raise their pitch, and where to emphasize a word or phrase. Actors have the arduous task of poring over every line of dialogue assigned to them dozens of times because they must deliver it with gusto and genuine emotion. One line delivered half-heartedly or with improper phrasing can lead to a lackluster performance.
As authors, we have the challenge of making our dialogue believable and moving. Listening closely to the way our characters speak is vital. How do they communicate, what inflections do they use, what words do they emphasize, do they use contractions or not? How do their moods affect their use of language, do they prefer colloquial phrases or idioms, do they speak in complete sentences or fragments? By listening closely, we can better polish our dialogue and develop an ear for it, much the way an actor does.
2) Actors and authors must develop appropriate blocking and staging in a scene.
When working through a play script, there are specific blocking notes written in to indicate where the character should move. The director can adjust the blocking as he or she sees fit to add richness to the movement on stage between characters. As the author in your story, you are the director, and you are allowed to move your people as much as you want (happy dance). If you place a person in one spot at first, you can always move him or her later. Sometimes it’s helpful to try different blocking techniques for the same scene and see which one works best. Is it better if a character stands or crouches, walks or remains motionless? What does that say about the character at that time?
Just as an audience member’s eyes are drawn to movement in a live play, a reader’s mind’s eye will be drawn to character movement in your scene on the page. Most conversations in real life have at least some form of non-verbal movement (folded arms, pacing, fumbling hands together, biting fingernails, etc.), depending on the mood and the subject of conversation, so those subtle nuances can be interjected into our story scenes as well. The movements of a character in stage acting are created and refined through the rehearsal process for a specific reason, and we can approach the movements of our story’s characters in each scene with the same type of intentionality. Every movement should have a purpose—to reveal something about the character’s personality or motivations through action.
3) Actors and authors must slip into the character’s skin.
Rather than taking Buffalo Bill’s creepy approach from The Silence of the Lambs and making an actual skin suit, I just mean the process of setting aside one’s preconceived ideas and responses and adopting the character’s worldview, attitudes, and mental and emotional framework. The actor responds as the character would, not as the actor as a person would. It sounds basic, but as an audience member, it’s easy to tell if an actor is believable or not—does the character ring true or does the portrayal feel forced or contrived?
As authors, we have the same challenge and opportunity to set aside our preconceived ideas of how we would respond to the circumstances and conflicts presented to our characters. By doing so, we can enter the mental and emotional framework of our characters and write genuine actions and reactions that resonate with believability.
If you ever have a chance to take an acting class, whether an improvisational class or a method acting class, I highly recommend it. The lessons and principles taught will give you insight into your characters, settings, and overall scene development. Who knows, you might even get some story ideas out of it?
Actors are a strange, rare, and wonderful breed. They must captivate an audience from the moment they step on stage, they must summon emotion and transfer it to the characters they are portraying, and they must deliver their best work each time, all the while paying close attention to each character’s motivations, staging, dialogue, and authenticity. As writers, we’re no different. We have all the same challenges, only our stage is the page, and our theater-sized audience is one reader at a time. We can learn a lot from our dramatic friends. Happy writing.