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All the World’s a Book: Acting for Writers

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

I was a theatre major for my first two years of college. I went to school with some supremely talented people who were completely in their element. It was thrilling to watch the ways their performances fueled them. It also left me painfully aware that acting was not really my thing. I didn’t feed off the energy of performance the way my peers did.

Turns out it’s kind of hard to be a theatre major and also a pathologically shy eighteen-year-old. Do you know that when you study theatre they make you talk in front of people? True story. Also, all those lines…you’re supposed to remember them.

What I did love about being a theatre major, was the study of theatre: the history, the dissection of plays, and the off-stage work of acting.

Years later, when I started writing, (and felt fueled by it), I realized my attraction to theatre was the right art, but the wrong form.

As theatre majors, we studied the history of storytelling. We read Shakespeare and Aristophanes, Harold Pinter and Theresa Rebeck. In acting classes, we penciled in subtext next to the lines in our scripts, and made choices about cadence and pauses and meaning. Homework included sitting in public places with a notebook, writing down overheard dialogue.

When we prepared monologues for midterm, our professor interviewed us as our characters. Even though we were only performing a few paragraphs from the play, we needed to know the entire script inside and out. She’d also ask us questions that didn’t have answers in the text. What’s your favorite color? How did you feel on your first day of school? What did you eat for lunch today? We had to know enough about our characters for the answers to come easily and make sense.

It was the perfect training for writing fiction.

I learned to think of characters as beings who are built, crafted, and cared for, until they take on life of their own. When you put the work in, they start talking for you. They know that for lunch today they had lukewarm vegetable soup at the diner down the street and all the crackers in the cellophane packet were broken.

They surprise you, but it makes sense. Who they are becomes a road map. You know how your well built-character will act in a scene, the same way that you probably have a pretty good idea of what your best friend would say if you proposed a night of pizza and drinking and reality TV. Is your friend lactose intolerant? Is she opposed to all things Kardashian? Is she trying to get pregnant, or totally up for a beer?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that writers with an acting background are hardly a rare breed. There are many theater people lurking among us.  Since I’ll take any excuse I can get to ask other writers about their work, I decided to check in with some of my fellow former thespians to discuss how their time on stage influences their work.

I’m always telling students that my theatre training was some of my best training as a writer, and I encourage them to sign up for basic acting classes if they’re brave enough. For me, the biggest connection is in character motivation. As an actor, that’s your question the minute you’re handed a script–but far too many writers will write hundreds of pages before ever giving this a thought. Character development is the same whether it’s on the page or to be performed, and it all comes down to motivation and personal stakes (I’m kind of an evangelist for motivation!). The added bonuses are: when I began writing I knew inherently what a scene was and how one should unfold and end, what natural dialogue sounds like (and how god awful unrealistic dialogue sounds when spoken aloud), and the value of props to convey emotion! ~Katrina Kittle [1], author of Reasons to be Happy 

Not a theatre major here (though I did plenty of high school and college productions), but I took a playwriting workshop in the Drama department in grad school that was half writers and half actors, and we’d all bring fresh pages to class to see them acted out. It was a very powerful way to find out the words we’d written didn’t make any sense coming out of an actual person’s mouth. It really, really helped sharpen my skills for writing dialogue. ~Greer Macallister [2], author of The Magician’s Lie 

I did a lot of acting in high school and will very often find myself speaking my characters’ voices out loud as I write particular scenes. I like doing accents, the more exaggerated the better, and if I’m alone in the house I’ll definitely play that up… ~Bruce Hollsinger [3], author of The Invention of Fire 

In studying theatre, the play really is the thing. Those words on the page, that’s what you’ve got to establish character, theme, tone, plot, setting, everything. And so much of it is spoken aloud. So I learned how to discover a character’s background, education, social status, hopes, fears, loves and hates and prejudices not only from what they say but HOW they say it. Do they repeat themselves? Do they use big words, or clipped sentences? Do they say “um” a lot, or are they direct and assured? Do they change how they speak depending on whom they’re speaking to? Everyone’s different, and how they interact with the world around them reveals their true selves. Theatre has the time to really explore it, but characters need be no less real in a 3 page scene that’s to be filmed against green screen and end with a SMASH CUT. They need to be real, and unique. Theatre taught me how to do that. ~Brantley Aufill [4], Screenwriter 

I was involved in theatre in high school and college, and my hubby is an amateur actor and playwright. Something that helps with my writing that I think was tested through my theatre experience is how the smallest changes can create vast differences in how a scene plays out and how a character is perceived by the audience. ~Therese Walsh [5], author of The Moon Sisters 

Playing different roles in theater and opera gave me a great sense of drama and being different people. I sang boys in several operas and in our Shakespeare group I played the role of Shylock and after reading it, I physically felt his rage and understood tremendous wild anger, something I had had trouble writing…There’s a huge physicality in singing opera that is anything but cerebral and I try to cut out my narrative passages in writing when I can, the telling not showing bad habit, and remember how very physical these big emotions are. ~Stephanie Cowell [6], author of Claude and Camille 

For me, one of the biggest lessons would be in subtlety–it is so easy to overdo in acting, knowing when to pull back in a scene is so important–and I think that’s very true in writing. Being careful not to overshow to the reader, to trust that a quieter response (whether in action or dialog) can be more effective than blowing it out. Also, theater definitely helped me with pacing in dialog and physicality of it. I “block” my scenes when I write as if I am acting them, and it helps me to think about what kind of actions feel real and right in a conversation. ~Erika Marks [7], author of The Last Treasure 

Studying the great dramatists taught me to write chapters (thinking of them as scenes) where something actually happens beyond naval-gazing; where the conflict and tension grow and the stakes are upped in each ensuing chapter. This understanding also enabled me to write screenplays. Also, studying theater history grounded me in the sort of background I needed to write historical fiction. My parents thought I was insane when I declared my major but it was the best decision I ever made in my young life—not to mention that I passed my undergraduate years passionately engaged in my subject. ~Karen Essex [8], author of Dracula in Love

When it comes to writing fiction, I definitely rely on lessons learned from my old acting days. There are so many similarities between the crafts, including the establishment of themes and backstories, character arcs and development, interwoven relationships, and realistic dialogue and emotions. Also, the application of GMC (or goal, motivation, conflict) to every scene has by far been the most helpful for me — conflict being key in keeping a story moving, no matter the medium. ~Kristina McMorris [9], author of The Edge of Lost

Y’know, it’s a funny thing. I never took a proper writing class in school nor considered myself much of a writer (and, if I’m being honest, still don’t). By the time I actually got around to doing the whole proper television writing thing, it had been years since I worked in theatre. But as life has gone on and I’ve mulled it over, of course OF COURSE of course the theatre is always there. And not just in the fact that I have a natural predilection to slap a page and a half monologue on my characters (which I do) or that I like sticking two people in a room to chat for an entire act (and have done). But in the rhythm of the dialogue, the cadence in their voices, the weight of a silence. There’s not a lot of spectacle to hide behind in theater (or, at least the theatre we did in college). You can’t cut to a car chase to spice things up or toss some emotional music over a montage in order to goose the story forward. You’ve got words. That’s… pretty much it. In theatre those words are the engine of it all, and how they are used (or not used) in order to keep a scene moving and building towards something affecting is nothing short of genius when done well. So it makes me strive, in my own work, to tap into such energy. The more my words can stand on their own — and be honest — the less I need to rely on a cinematic crutch to connect with the audience. ~Kevin Deiboldt [10], Television Writer 

I am continually thankful that my high-school-senior-self somehow didn’t realize acting is for talkers when I was applying for college. And I am continually recommending acting classes to writers who want to study craft.

Even if you have no desire to stand in the spotlight, taking a community acting class, or doing some time in summer theatre could be a helpful boost to your writing. You may discover a talent you didn’t know you had, but also remember that you don’t have to be good at something to learn about it. The point of acting as a writer is not to give a brilliant performance, but to use the tools of performance to add depth and strength to your writing.

In addition to the excellent storytelling tools, two years of theatre school (which also meant two years of hanging out with theatre people) helped me get over my shyness. I am still, at my core a quiet person, but public speaking doesn’t rattle me. This comes in super handy when it’s time for book promotion.

If actual acting seems a little too daunting, do it anyway here are a few simple exercises to get yourself in tune with your characters:

Don’t feel any pressure to use the results of these exercises directly in your work. The point is not to show your research, it’s to know the characters in your story, so you can best understand how to write their thoughts and actions with authenticity.

Are you a theatre-person/writer? What are your tricks for getting to know your imaginary friends?