Bringing The Theater to Your Writing
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but for a long time, I wanted to be an actor, too. I acted in plays in high school, college, and then for a few years in the decidedly unglamorous world of New York’s Off–Off–Broadway (no less than three theatres I worked in had rats in the dressing rooms. It’s tough to do a quick–change when you’re teetering on a folding chair). My acting career never took off and eventually I decided to focus on writing and earning a living. I don’t think anyone shed tears of agony over my departure.
When I became a published author, people started asking me about my approach to writing. After I finally stopped poking my fingers into their shoulders and insisting they prove they were real, I began to think seriously about that question. What I discovered was that my approach to acting had gradually bled into my approach to writing, and I came away with a few insights that I hope other writers and readers will find interesting, perhaps even useful.
I am not, and never was, a great actor. I didn’t study with any renowned coaches or attend any famous acting schools, and my training was scattershot at best. I don’t have a vast knowledge of the theatre or claim to be an expert (in anything). I gleaned what I know from the many brilliant people who were generous enough to share their talents and their time with me.
Everybody Wants Something
The next time you’re watching a party scene in a play, take your eyes off the lead actors for a few minutes and focus instead on one of the actors in the background. Even though they may just be a face in the crowd at that moment, that actor is still responsible for making sure their character has a reason to be in that scene, doing what they’re doing.
As an actor, it’s your job to create that level of detail for yourself if the script doesn’t provide it. You need to concoct a backstory that explains not just how you came to be at the party, but what you want now that you’re there. Maybe you’re anxiously watching the door for the teenage crush you haven’t seen in years. Maybe you’re a debonair jewel thief casing the joint for a daring robbery.
The specifics don’t really matter. What matters is that your motivation – whatever it is – gives your character life and energy, which in turn gives you a presence on the stage that the audience feels. On the other hand, without that sense of purpose, you’re just a person standing on the stage with a glass in your hand, waiting for your turn to speak.
When I’m writing, it’s not until I put myself in the role of each character that the world of the book starts to feel real. I know that if my central characters have this kind of depth, but my supporting characters do not, the reader will sense that something’s missing and the world will feel flat and sketchy. Of course, it takes time to develop backstories that won’t ever see the page (nor should they, since an extra should never draw focus from the leads), but still, I believe it’s well worth the time, since the depth created through the exercise will still be there even if the details are not.
Don’t Give Away Your Power
When you’re standing on stage with a few hundred people staring at you, it’s your job as an actor to keep their attention riveted on the play. Your best chance of doing this is to make your choices as active (‘playable’ in acting lingo) as possible. If you keep the focus on what you want instead of falling into the trap of acting as a foil for the other character, you’ll keep the tension high and the audience rapt.
For instance, say you have a scene in which the villain of the piece, Tray, is trying to get his hands on the magical Spork of Lunchistan. You’re playing the hero, so your first thought might be, ‘Okay, so I have to stop Tray from getting the Spork.’ The problem here is that you’ve just ceded most of your power to Tray. Tray’s motivation – getting the Spork – is so much stronger than your motivation – stopping him – that you’re going to spend most of your time simply reacting to what Tray is doing. That skews the balance of power too far in Tray’s favor and diminishes the potential for tension within the scene. It’s a weak choice.
Reframe your hero’s motivation as, ‘I want to destroy the magical Spork before Tray gets it,’ and now you and Tray have more equitable, competing goals. Your strategies will be more active, which in turn will raise the stakes on Tray and make the scene much more exciting for the audience.
As a writer, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of giving your ‘point-of-view’ character an active goal while allowing the others to serve as foils or sidekicks. When I’m working on a scene that feels flat, more often than not it’s because I’ve made weak choices for the non-point-of-view characters. Fix this, allow the characters to push and challenge each other, and suddenly I have a scene that really works.
If They’re Looking at the Scenery, You’re Doing It Wrong
You throw your whole heart into a performance, leave everything you have on stage, take your makeup off, change, come out of the stage door and meet your friends, and they say, ‘The set was really cool’. Ouch, right? (If they say, ‘I liked the lighting,’ it’s time to buy that bus ticket home.)
I’m certainly not arguing that world-building is not important in fantasy. But as a reader and lifelong fan of the genre, I’ll admit that, if the scenery is more interesting than the characters, you’ve lost me.
I spent my teen summers working as an assistant costumer at a children’s theatre. It usually fell to me to outfit the scores of adorable townspeople inhabiting Oz, Wonderland, Toyland, Narnia, Neverland, etc. We staged a new production every week. I learned very quickly not to spend time on details that no one without 20/20 vision in the first two rows was ever going to see.
Words on the page represent the time that the reader is investing in your story. Don’t waste it with obsessive details that do nothing to grow the characters or move the story forward, even if you think they’re super cool. If they’re important to the story, they’ll work their way in naturally.
Be In The Moment
So, you’re on stage, you’re warmed up and ready to go and the scene is starting. You know your lines and your blocking (where and when you move). You have every detail of your backstory worked out. You know your motivation and all of the strategies you’re going to employ to accomplish your goal.
Now your job is to forget all of that and play the scene like it’s happening right now, for the first and only time. If I had a fatal flaw as an actor, this was it. I lacked the courage to let go of all of that preparation, get out of my own head and just be in the moment.
It’s really no different when you’re writing a scene. Your characters should be completely in the moment, acting and responding to the world that’s present around them. If you try and force them to comment on things they already know, make them wait while you paint pictures, or focus on the past or future and lose a sense of the present, you’ve lost them, and probably the reader, too.
If you’re a writer or an aspiring writer and have never had the chance to be on stage, I encourage you to give acting a try. Breathing life into a character through your own body, looking out at the world through their eyes, is very different than simply imagining it. You may find that it adds a whole new dimension to your writing. And if not, well – there’s always the potential for a hook-up at the cast party.