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?