Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Actor Writes

As I spend more and more time focusing on becoming a decent writer, I spend more and more time being grateful for all the years I spent as an actor and a director in the theatre. I had never given it much thought, but upon contemplation I have realized my theatrical history has given me many advantages.

As an actor I spent years (and I do mean years) getting inside other people's heads. I've played career-driven women, women with relationship issues, women hungry for power and women looking for love. I've even played a man with emotional troubles; it was the psychiatrist Martin Dysart in Peter Schaffer's classic play Equus. I learned all different types of dialogue, from comedic to tragic to Shakespearean. I honed my sense of comedy. I learned how people react to different situations and how to portray that (both emotionally and physically) on stage.

As a director I learned to 'look at the whole board' instead of concentrating on one specific piece. I learned to ensure the pace was swift and the interactions between the characters were real. I learned how to build suspense or how to make the most of a comedic moment. I learned when people should be quiet or when they should be loud. Most importantly, I learned how to make the play a cohesive whole.

All this experience has made writing much easier. I can get inside each of my characters' heads and look through the world through their eyes quite easily. I know what vocabulary each of them use. I know their rhythms. Most importantly, I know what each of them want. My directing experience has helped me look at my WIP as a whole, and aided in my knowledge of when the plot has stalled or the pace is dragging. In a play every scene has to move the plot forward and I try to apply this rule to my writing. Every unit has to either move the plot or let the reader learn something new about a character (or characters). I try not to have large descriptions of settings, unless it's vital to the plot. Many times it's the people and the events that are important, not the colour of the paint.

Every actor learns how to discover their character by the phrase "what do I say about me, what do I say about others and what do others say about me". Take a look at whatever you're writing at the moment and apply this. It may change how you view your characters or it may help you realize you're writing it exactly the way you want!

In the theatre instead of saying 'good luck' we say 'break a leg'. In that spirit, to all you writers I say 'break a pen or keyboard'.


  1. Really neat, Beth!

    I think having a combined background in psychology (undergrad) and rhetoric (grad,) as opposed to literature, has been the key for me. What you described as an actor (getting into people's heads), is the psych part; the "seeing the whole board" (I keep hearing Bartlet say that to Sam!) is the rhetorical part.

    How fab to be able to weave our lives and experiences into our writing this way!

  2. It's great how your background has helped you in your writing!

  3. Elspeth - You are fortunate that you've been able to take both a "bird's eye" view and an introspective view when it comes to creating a story. I'm sure that helps you as you write, since a good novel requires both a "long view" and insight into each character. I've often wished I had some acting experience, as I think it would help me "become" my characters. Fortunately, they're pretty real, and have no problem asking me to "butt out" and let them tell the story.

  4. Elisa; I knew you would recognise the Sorkin quote! I'm sure your background is a similar help.

    Carolyn; It's weird. Who knew?

    Margot; I'm confidant your characters are real, breathing, human beings; how could they not be when you're as gifted as you are?

  5. How about 'break a curling iron'? I broke mine yesterday.

    Seriously, your post gives me an idea on how to see the story from each character's head rather than just those times in in their heads. If that makes sense.

  6. Karen; Yes, the tree stayed put and was cut down today. Now I have to get rid of what fell on my property; which is a ton of tree.

    Carol; Glad I was able to help! (and yes, what you said makes sense.)

  7. Sorry you have to deal with getting rid of all that "tree".

    I can see where being and actor and a director could make you a better writer. My husband is a creative director, and I've written many scripts for production, it's always amazing to see what the actor does with the dialogue I've written.

  8. I think you've had a great background for writing novels.

    Is the tree good burning wood? Could you use it in a fireplace, or is it too sappy?

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  9. Elizabeth B; It is a tremendous help; little did I know when I was acting or directing that this would be how I used the knowledge!

    Elizabeth SC; Unfortunately we have no fireplace. I just want this tree in my yard gone! And, it's my hassle not the neighbour's. Luckily the tree in their yard got cut down today.

  10. I never thought about how helpful acting would be to a writer. Makes me wonder why more actors and actresses aren't writing great novels.

  11. I think your background gives you a lot of great input into your writing. Living as a character and putting those characters in motion would give you a lot of insights :)

  12. Patricia; Acting's a pretty nice gig if you can make a living at it. I'm not that surprised.

    Jemi; It really does. I'm lucky. Of course, you can have all the insights in the world and still stink as a writer!

  13. Really enjoyed this post and could relate since I do some acting and have directed plays for a long time. Have you ever actually acted out a scene for your story? I have done that when I was stuck in how I was going to have people move or react in a scene. I get up and move around my office, which my dog thinks is weird, especially if I am talking, too.


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