5 Ways Acting Can Strengthen Your Writing

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SCBWI Ireland

Written by Anna Tran

During our process, we can become discouraged when we feel our writing is not going anywhere, after receiving feedback that we did not expect from critique partners, or when we have received multiple rejections from agents and publishers to represent our book. This was certainly the case for me for some time; however, it was not until I took a one-year hiatus from writing that I discovered my joy for acting. Acting has helped me to bring back my desire to write novels.

Acting can help strengthen your writing in the following ways:

1. Get into character: There is an acting technique from Michael Chekhov where you imagine the physical appearance of the character you are playing from head to toe in detail, ask the character which scene they want you to show, and then you step physically into your imaginary character’s feet, hands, and head to play them.

If you feel stuck in a revision or have trouble putting your butt in chair and write, just sit down. Close your eyes. Envision your protagonist sitting in front of you and look at their face. Ask them what scene they’d like to show you. Open your eyes and become your protagonist by using your imagination to step into their physical body.

You can stay seated and write immediately as your character, or you may want to stand up and act it out to really understand what they are feeling. To explore further, you can even go outside, walk as your character, look at people passing you, and observe how your character thinks and feels about them. This will help you write from your character’s point of view, especially when they are going through turmoil.

2. Write dialogue with a rich subtext: When actors read their lines in a film or play script, they try to understand the meaning behind the dialogue: what their character is not saying directly, and whatever insights they get about the character. While reading the script as a writer, this can help you notice the words playwrights or screenwriters have written and why they use such words to reveal the character. This will help you write conversations between your characters. It is a skill that you develop by writing over and over again and putting in the hours so that eventually, writing subtext becomes natural for you.

3. Help readers connect to your characters: This is an acting exercise, known as the “repetition exercise”, that involves two people facing each other. They repeat their observations and respond to each other’s behaviors back and forth in an attempt to respond truthfully and emotionally.

For example, an exchange between them could be “You’re nervous.”; “I’m nervous.”; “You’re nervous!”; “Yes, I’m nervous.” until one of them feels something inside that propels them to do something else as a result of the other actor’s behavior and give an opinion about them. This can be described as “Fact, Feeling, Opinion, Impulse” from acting teacher Sanford Meisner.

It is similar to “Emotion –> Thought –> Decision –> Action” in Jack Bickham’s book Scene and Structure. For example, your protagonist is meeting your antagonist for the first time in your manuscript. This generates an emotion within the protagonist (e.g., fear), how they feel and what they think about the antagonist, and then they make a decision about how to deal with the situation at that moment in the scene. When you’re revising, you can use this method to make sure that your protagonist is responding believably in any given circumstance and help your readers connect to the character emotionally.

Doing the repetition exercise in an acting class and understanding this structure can help you write better what the characters in your manuscript are going through, so they do not appear like cut-out dolls.

Important: if you’d like to try the repetition exercise with someone, please do so with a qualified acting teacher who teaches the Meisner technique to prevent psychological damage.

4. Study the art of storytelling: Actors read a play or film script in its entirety to understand their characters and how to play them: their backgrounds, objectives, internal and external conflicts, the through-line of action, their character arc, etc. By studying them with an acting teacher, it can help you to develop your characters fully and increase the dramatic tension in your manuscript.

There are many good screenwriting books (e.g., Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Michael Hauge’s Story Structure, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story) that can help with plotting your novel. However, if you learn better by doing, having an acting teacher going through these steps can help you to enforce what you have learned from these books faster.

5. Read your manuscript out loud: Actors have to memorize their lines out loud in order to perform as characters in plays, TV programmes, films, or acting classes. After doing this enough times, it becomes a habit to read the dialogue you have written out loud, see whether your characters are talking naturally, and read your manuscript to spot any awkward words you have used or anything that does not belong to the plot.

If you feel stuck in your writing or you would like to try a fun activity that can help with your writing, try taking an acting class. It will help strengthen your imagination and reinforce the art of storytelling that you have read in craft books. And you never know—something that you have learned in an acting class could become the idea for your next book!

(c) Anna Tran

Anna Tran is a Young Adult writer and member of the SCBWI. She also writes Vietnamese fairytale retellings. She can be found pretending to play characters from plays and films, or sharing her multicultural adventures on YouTube. You can visit Anna on her website: http://www.anna-tran.com and on Twitter: @itsannatran.

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