Five Ways Acting Made Me a Better Writer (Part 2)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

By the time you read this, I’ll be on a plane somewhere over the Rocky Mountains headed toward Hedgebrook for my week-long Master Class with author Deborah Harkness. I won’t have Internet while I’m there and they’ve asked us not to blog or do social media (so that we get the full writer’s retreat experience), so there won’t be a post on March 10. Hopefully, sometime later that week I’ll be able to do one on my experiences, but if not, I’ll tell you all about it on March 17.

In the meantime, sit back, relax and enjoy part two of my ramble on how acting classes made me a better writer. Here’s part one in case you missed it.

3) Blocking – As on stage, the characters in a book don’t stay in one place, nor do they just stand around with nothing to do while they talk. The movement on stage is known as blocking. When I write, I’m the director of the play. I see the scene in my head as if it were on stage or film and I give my characters very particular tasks while they’re talking, from unpacking a chest to practicing swordplay. The direction they turn, how fast they approach another character, even their facial expressions are carefully choreographed based on my experiences on stage. Some people say you can give your characters too obvious of blocking, and I think that’s true. It’s all about how you write it. You can’t just say. “Jane crossed over to the box,” like you would in a stage direction. In a book, the motivation has to come through. “Jane stomped over to the chest and threw open the lid,” gives you the idea that Jane is angry, presumably with whomever else is in the scene. It gets her where you need her to go, but accomplishes more than just that.

4) Dialogue – All those years of memorizing lines and reciting dialogue have given me a keen ear for what sounds real in dialogue and what doesn’t. Many people advocate reading your dialogue out loud so that you know how it would sound if actually spoken. This is a great exercise that comes straight from the “table reads” or “cold reads” that actors do. The first time a cast approaches a script, they all sit down together and just read their parts, with no attempt to “act.” Nothing else is required because it gives them a sense of how they will work together and how their interactions might change the meaning of a line. It also gives them a basis to think on as they are rehearsing and developing their characters.

Delivering countless lines and monologues has also given me the ability to hear with my inner ear how a character would say something, as opposed to how I would naturally say it, which comes in very handy when writing. One of my speech writing teachers in graduate school said it’s a skill you either have or don’t, but I think it can be developed by studying the dialogue of plays, and more importantly, delivering it. Once you’ve had to “become” a character, words and all, you retain a bit of that ability to tap into that alter ego in your head, making your dialogue a bit more true to life.

5) Confidence – This may seem like a strange one, but acting experience is the reason I’ve had the guts to be interviewed live in person and online and have given workshops in front of crowds at conferences. Standing up in front of people is hard, no matter who you are or how many words you’ve put down on the page. But, getting out in front of your fans is a necessary part of promoting yourself and your books. Whether you’re doing a reading, Q&A or just signing books, someday you’re going to have your own audience, and being practiced will lessen the stress of such an event.

If you have kids who are interested in writing or show a talent for it, one of the best things you can do is encourage them to take acting classes. Even if they don’t go into writing, it will prepare them for so much of adult life, giving them critical thinking skills, poise and a sense of worth.  Heck, even if you’re an adult, it’s not too late to start. Join a community theater or see if your local community college needs actors. Take acting classes at your community center. You’ll be surprised how differently you look at your writing afterwards, and you’ll be more confident, too.

Have you ever taken acting classes or studied acting methods to learn how to write? What were your experiences? If not, what do you think of the idea of acting being a good training ground for writers?

Five Ways Acting Made Me a Better Writer (Part 1)


Source: Wikimedia Commons

The other day, I was reminiscing with an old friend about when I used to do theatre in high school and college. Somehow in the course of the conversation, I realized just how much all that acting made me a better writer. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, since one is the spoken word and one is written, but allow me to explain. (I’m breaking it into two parts since I ended up having a lot to say, so be sure to come back next week for part 2.)

Disclaimer: I was mostly a techie (makeup, sound and house crews), but I did get the lead in college and am a proud member of thespian troupe 1735. While plays taught me a good deal, it was the classes I took (those were six years of fine arts credits) that really gave me the experience that honed me into a strong writer. Here’s how:

1) Motivation –One of the first things I learned as an actor was that there’s more to the craft than just reciting lines. (Just like there’s more to writing than making characters do and say things.) You have to understand the “why” behind the actions. As in writing, this often takes the form of examining the character’s back story. If it’s not there in the script you work with the director or other actors to make it up. (In writing, you play all of those roles, so you can make up what you want.)

For example, my senior year I had one line in a one-act play, The Lottery. (I still remember it: “There’s the head man a comin.’”) Even though it was a tiny part, I still had to know how my nearly silent character fit in with the rest of the villagers. Along with a few of the other actors, I ended up creating this whole soap opera-ish back story about a love gone wrong and a child who was caught in the middle (there were kids in the play, too). The audience would never know why this other actress and I spent most of the play glaring at each other, but we knew and it was important because it affected what we did on stage and it allowed us to appear as more than simply part of the scenery.

In the same way, knowing your character’s motivations is key as a writer. Many times, most of what you learn won’t end up on the page, but that knowledge will enable you to create a richer, more believable experience for your readers, just like an actor does on the stage.

2) Becoming Your Character– It’s almost cliché to say that a good actor becomes the role they are playing. But it’s also true and it stands just as much for a good writer. I do my best to really get into the minds of my characters. When I’m in a scene, I may as well be acting all the parts. When I get into later drafts, I try to see each scene from the point of view of every important character in it, so I can tell if their actions and reactions are authentic. Acting is all about the interplay between actors, just as story is about the interplay between characters. It has to be authentic to be believable.

I’m also a sort of method writer. When I want to write about the taste of something, I eat or drink it if I can’t remember the details. I’ve been known to pull on my own hair or scratch my nails down a wooden door to get the expression of sensation just right. But there are other times when pure imagination is safer and more appropriate. If you’ve ever done the “pretend you’re carrying something heavy” or “imagine you’re an ice cream cone” exercises in an acting class (lampooned in the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line), you can call to mind the skills needed to make just about anything seem real in a scene.

Next week we’ll talk about how blocking (the movement of actors on the stage) and dialogue influence writing and acting, plus one other often-overlooked benefit that being an actor can have for writers.

Have you ever taken acting classes or studied acting methods to learn how to write better? What were your experiences? If not, what do you think of the idea of acting being a good training ground for writers?