"Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living."
-Anais Nin

21 July 2011

Writing Tips from an Actor's Tool Kit

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A peek into what actors might teach writers

We all know screenwriting resources can be very helpful to the fiction writer. It might be counter-intuitive, though, that writers can also learn from actors. Those glamorous celebrities on the red carpet, those ‘starving artists’ on stage in your local theatre, those familiar faces on TV-- not only are some of them (or their ghost writers) writing their memoirs, but they also rely on tools and methods which I've found very helpful to fiction writing. 

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Enriching Character Development Through Varied Actions
You’ve probably agonised at some point over describing how a character moves and acts in order to convey his/her personality. You don’t want to say he’s bossy; you want to show him ordering his friends around. You don’t want to say he’s nervous; you want to say he’s jiggling his leg, she’s biting her lip; and so on. Sooner or later, though, you may find yourself repeating actions and words. Perhaps not in a short story, but more likely in a 90,000-word novel.

A thesaurus is no longer adequate. It’s not enough to change ‘stare’ to ‘gawk’, ‘watch’ to ‘observe’. You want to convey a deeper appreciation of your character’s personality through a variety of action verbs and action descriptions.

That’s where actors’ resources can come in. Actors need to get inside their characters’ heads, and act out not just what’s on the script  but convey the personality of the character through movement. To illustrate an actor doesn't simply 'walk'; he struts off with chest puffed out, feet trailing his body, to show that this person is one who is always impatient to get to his destination. An actress may not say much, but is constantly touching parts of her body and wetting her lips  to communicate flirtatiousness.

It's just as important for actors as it is for writers to avoid clich├ęs and repetitiveness in behaviour. Yet they both need to use signals and body language familiar to the audience.

There are a number of interesting articles on acting methods available on the internet which writers can also learn from. I summarise them below and illustrate how I think these lessons might be applied in fiction.

Action in non-action 
Image: Andy Newson / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


This article by Bill Howey gives actors tips on how to convey action through non-action. Writers also need to describe stillness, and not have characters constantly moving and 'doing'.  There's a list of when stillness would be appropriate (e.g before or after a decision, before or after a revelation, and more). As Bill says, "Strong character stories rise out of stillness".

For these scenes, writers can describe sensations and thoughts of the unmoving character. Use non-action verbs  (e.g. those that evoke sensations, show desire, communicate opinion and the like) in place of movement. Just as the actor is internalizing the moment, so can  the writer show introspection.

Non-action can also be a good time to describe the character's surroundings. As the camera pans from the character's pensive face to the breathtaking landscape around her, so can  the writer illustrate the unmoving external environment and setting.

Sense Memory

You've heard that fiction is the realisation of truth through imagined and created scenes. Sense and emotional memory methods can help writers struggling to describe objects, actions or scenes. By recalling a similar scene that might have happened to you, you would be able to better describe how your character acts or reacts in the same situation. Sense memory has to be linked very closely to the personality of the  character, of course. While s/he may have a very different personality from you, your sense memory will still help in making the scene and the actions truthful and believable.

How should your characters react and act in the scenes? You know them well, you know their motivations, their objectives, the stakes the plot has raised for them. Yet you might struggle at times to show them acting, well, in character. This article describes techniques an actor uses to distinguish action versus emotion. It suggests how you can tap into your own emotional memory, and focus on your objectives when acting out. Just as the writer needs to show the emotion rather than tell the reader what the character is feeling, the actor has to act out the emotion rather than simply yell, “I’m mad as hell!”

It's also interesting how a writer might apply the method of exploring a character 'from outside in' through his/her physicality and voice. A writer might be familiar with a character's thoughts, objectives and emotions, but how does that character sound? What are his/her physical mannerisms? How does a character's physical aspects feed into how he or she behaves in the story?

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Emotional reactions, physical actions
Act out the emotion you want to convey, to see what happens physically. To illustrate-- you’re tired: your arms feel heavy. You're angry: your jaw clenches.Seems obvious? Read the article anyway to learn tips on how to tap self-examination techniques. Writers can't just observe how others behave, after all. We can also benefit from knowing ourselves better.

Actions: The Actor’s Thesaurus
by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams
(You can preview the book on Google).

I found this to be an interesting read, and one that even writers can use. Besides being a thesaurus specific to action verbs, it also illustrates different ways for a scene to be interpreted by changing the active verb that guides the actor on the objective for the dialogue. For example, the authors illustrate how Olivia's line in Act 1, Scene 5 of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night can be interpreted in three ways below:

OLIVIA: Whence came you, sir? [Actor speaks this line acting out the objective 'to examine']

OLIVIA: Whence came you, sir? [Actor acts out 'to captivate']

OLIVIA: Whence came you, sir? [Actor acts out 'to analyse'] 

Although the writer would not use these verbs (examine, captivate, analyse) in the text itself, the subtle differences between them provide insight on how a simple line can be transformed by how that those words are spoken. In imagining the different interpretations, a writer can also visualise different ways of showing  the scene.

Other than that, the thesaurus itself might be worth the price.

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Other Tools:
Actors, like writers, also study psychology and body language, two disciplines that provide valuable insights to how people act out their feelings and thoughts.

This is slightly off-topic, as this article comes from a business site rather than an article for actors. But I really want to share this excellent link to body language, with notes on cultural and gender differences. It even has a matrix for each body part and the various meanings of movement of those parts.

I've found it to be a helpful reference in describing actions. Most of it may not be new, but it's a good reminder that there's more than one way, for example, that a man can unconsciously show his interest in a woman, and vice versa. Or that aggressiveness can be conveyed in many different stances and gestures. After all, we can't be all like Dr. Cal Lightman (of Lie to Me). Many of us can use a handy reference to micro-gestures and micro-expressions.

Know of any other tips and tools from acting that help you in writing? Please do share in the comments below!

1 comment:

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