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How Being a Theater Geek Has Improved My Writing


First off, thanks to Jon for inviting me to flap my virtual gums here, courtesy of the Meager Puddle of Limelight Awards, and thanks to the people who liked my story titles enough to vote for them.

In trying to come up with a topic for my guest blog, my first thought was, "But I have enough trouble trying to figure out what to write on my own blog." My second thought was, "And who am I to think I have anything useful to say anyway?" I'm still not sure I have anything useful to say, but I decided to at least take an angle that not every writer may have: How Being a Theater Geek Has Improved My Writing.

One of the best books I've read on acting is A Practical Handbook for the Actor. Little did I know when I read it in college that it would also help me as a writer. One quote from the book: "The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play. To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment. "

As writers, we of course have to do more than analyze text--we have to write the text. But we're still searching for that truth of the moment, or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, "a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

A Practical Handbook for the Actor focuses on how to analyze a scene in order to achieve that truth of the moment. The book suggests that an actor ask three questions when analyzing a scene. Whether wearing my writer hat or my actor hat, I've found those questions to be helpful for getting into a character's head:

1. What is the character literally doing? (i.e. Gork the alien is debating the pros and cons of landing on Earth vs. continuing on his way home to the Googleplax Galaxy.)

2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing? (Gork is deciding if adventure is worth the risk.)

3. What is the action like to me? (It's as if I'm thinking about quitting my day job to pursue a risky new career--let's say, oh, writing fulltime.)

The book addresses how you can use your answers to those questions to decide on the best physical action to take in a scene. You the writer may not be taking any action beyond pecking at your keyboard, but like an actor, your characters are on stage, so to speak. Deciding on the best physical action the way an actor might can help in avoiding two writerly pitfalls: 1) telling when you should be showing, and 2) empty stage directions that don't tell your reader anything.

In regards to the latter, a friend and I were recently discussing the issue of "looking" words that often creep into prose: looked, glanced, stared, gazed, watched, etc. Often, those words aren't necessary. Either the fact that the character is looking is inherent in the narrative, or the words are simply empty--stage directions without a stage or actors to make them work. For example:

When John walked through the front door, Sara was waiting for him, arms folded and a scowl on her face.

"Where have you been?" she asked.

John looked at her. "Does it matter?"

In the writer's head, that look is probably imbued with significance. But for me the reader, that look doesn't tell me anything because I don't know how John is looking at her. His look is devoid of emotional context, so I don't know if his response is one of anger, resignation, embarrassment, or what have you. (And it's an unnecessary "looked" to boot--not having been told otherwise, I assumed he was already looking at her.)

This is when I draw on acting by ignoring the narrative for a moment and looking at the dialogue as if it were a play. If I were cast in John's role, how would I play this scene? How would I deliver that line? What kind of body language would I be using? How would my reaction change depending on how the actor playing Sara delivered her line? Sometimes I'll even get up and act out the scene to better capture the physicality behind it. Then I sit down and try to capture that experience on paper.

John does more than simply look at Sara in this scene. He shuffles his feet because he's uncomfortable. Or his cheeks burn because he's too ashamed to admit where he's been. Or he's trying not to roll his eyes because he's sick of getting asked the same damn question every night. There are so many possibilities in that moment, and they're all far more engaging than "John looked at her."

I find the same process helpful with the aforementioned telling vs. showing issue. Instead of telling the reader something like "John was annoyed by the question," approaching that moment as an actor can help me find a way to show that annoyance. A roll of the eyes. Walking off in a huff without answering. Or maybe in the way he answers--his choice of words or the tone of his voice.

Not every writer is going to want to run out and take an acting class or audition for their next local community theater production, but if you're so inclined, I highly recommend it. Not just for the reasons I've babbled about above, but also because the process of wrapping your mouth around someone else's words to play a character can help develop your ear for dialogue as well.

While I haven't yet read it myself, a book on this topic that's been recommended to me is Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins.

Happy writing.  

Barbara A. Barnett, or [info]babarnett as we know her on LiveJournal, is a 2007 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she learned valuable things about writing and the evil ways of chickens. Her fiction ranges from the dark to the wacky and usually falls within the realm of the fantastic: fantasy, science fiction, horror, and the just plain weird.
Extra Bit: If you haven't already read it, Barbara's flash fiction, Dumping the Dead, is now online at EveryDay Fiction.  An excellent and amusing tale of death and karma  

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 29th, 2009 11:58 am (UTC)
Great post, Barbara! I too have thought about "looking" words. Another aspect of it is something I've always called "filtering," as when the narrative tells that the pov character looked/saw/noticed some action. Especially with tight third person (or even first) the presentation of the thing itself is preferable to filtering it through the pov that's already been established. Occasionally it can be used to good effect--to show paranoia or that the protag is an acute observer--but often it's unwarranted. But I hadn't thought about it as much in the empty stage direction aspect you mention. Thanks for bringing this up. These are important aspects of craft and technique that all we writers should think about and practice until they become second nature. :D
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 29th, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
I found it necessary at some points in the last short story I wrote when my character's vision was obscured for the better part of a scene.

Now that's a great example of its use, for then when it's noted that the protag saw something, it lights up the story with the ensuing conflict I assume.

Edited at 2009-10-29 02:29 pm (UTC)
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Oct. 29th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)
Makes perfect sense. :-)
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
That was GREAT! I am printing it up and keeping it in my desk. Thank you!

Hey, Jon--can I link this in my LJ? I know a whole lot of readers who will find this VERY useful.
Oct. 29th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)
Of course! :)
Oct. 29th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'll do that right now!
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)
So true! My acting days are (fortunately for audiences everywhere) well behind me, but the depth of analysis necessary for interpreting a script has stayed with me.
Oct. 29th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
This was fabulous! I love the three questions that actors ask... they do translate really well to writers, too. I have a tendency to think in "looking" words, and I have to fight to keep them off the page. I type "watched," wince, and delete. :) This gives me a systematic way to focus. Thanks!
Oct. 29th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
This was very helpful. Thank you.
Oct. 29th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks Barbara (and Jon)! Cool to see it from that perspective. Now I'm gonna go hack up my manuscripts.
Oct. 29th, 2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
Great post, Barbara!

It's not an obvious leap, but when you point it out (as you just did), it makes perfect sense to think of our characters as actors :)

Thanks for sharing :)
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Oct. 29th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
Incidentally, I keep finding those darn stage directions during editing, even though I could swear I'd already taken them out. It's like they breed or something :(
Oct. 29th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Great post, Barbara! Thanks to you and to Jon, too!
Oct. 29th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
"In the writer's head, that look is probably imbued with significance. But for me the reader, that look doesn't tell me anything because I don't know how John is looking at her. His look is devoid of emotional context, so I don't know if his response is one of anger, resignation, embarrassment, or what have you. (And it's an unnecessary "looked" to boot--not having been told otherwise, I assumed he was already looking at her.)"

Ahhh, my perennial bad habit. ;) Good suggestions on how to cope!
Oct. 29th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
You're lucky, my perennial bad habit is crappy writing :)
Oct. 29th, 2009 07:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing this, Barbara. Jon, you had a good idea when you started inviting guest bloggers.

I have a rule of thumb (that I sometimes even manage to follow), which I refer to as 'be there or be square'. That is, "Be inside your character's mind." Since there's a strong connection between thoughts, emotions and body, it makes perfect sense to imagine the reactions that go with the thoughts and express them instead of just plain old 'looking'.
Oct. 29th, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
I wonder if a lot of our 'lookings' come from a misinterpretation of the 'Show don't tell' rule.
Oct. 29th, 2009 09:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the tips. I hadn't really looked at it as acting before, but when I get to the revision stage (usually stage 2 or 3), I start to really dig into how the characters are feeling in this situation, try to see how they stand, what they're actually seeing or avoiding, and it helps to say the dialogue aloud sometimes (which feels awkward at first, but then sort of fun). And yes, those "look" words--I tend not to catch those until later revisions either. Tweaking, tweaking ... it takes awhile, but it's definitely worth it. Thanks for the reminder and a new way to look at this honing (now I have to comb through the novel I finished revising because I'm sure there are instances I've overlooked!).
Oct. 29th, 2009 10:38 pm (UTC)
This was really helpful! I wrote a scene with some staring yesterday, as a matter of fact. (She says with a red-face). ;-) Um, maybe you should have posted this a day earlier!!!!
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Oct. 30th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
LOL, Exactly! Get your psychic mojo on!
Oct. 30th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC)
I just wanted to say a big 'Thank you' to Barbara for stopping by yesterday. I learned a lot :)
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 30th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
My pleasure, and congrats. As of 11:45 you were the number one story of the last thirty days and the last year :)
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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