Things Writers Can Learn From Actors

Been to London for a few days, which gave me a chance to go to the theatre and marvel at what actors do with scripts. But is there anything we as writers can learn from the acting process?  I think there is…

Learn to respect each character’s ”moments”.  I had the great pleasure of seeing Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd, and one moment in particular struck me as an example of how a great actor is generous to their fellow performers.

After Sweeney loses his first chance at revenge, he has a spectacular song packed with grief and rage, one of the most powerful things Sondheim ever wrote. In the stunned silence that invariably follows, Mrs. Lovett chips in ”Yes, that’s all very well…”  The line’s usually played for laughs, and it works – but it risks undercutting Sweeney’s pivotal character revelation, and  cheating the audience of the impact of his grief.

But great actors are generous. Imelda Staunton, supported by the director, has the confidence to virtually throw the line away – just a soothing murmur, the first words that come into her head to calm him down. She doesn’t need the laugh – she gets plenty elsewhere, and well deserved – and both Sweeney and the story benefit from that moment playing at full effect.

And you as a writer can be generous to your characters. If someone has a moment, let it play. Don’t rush it, don’t cheapen it, don’t undercut it. Give your characters room to work, and your story will benefit.

No one can play an emotion. Up and down the country, amateur players, school plays and drama groups are full of people ”acting happy”, ”acting upset”, ”acting distraught”. At best, it comes across as melodrama. At worst, it’s incomprehensible to the audience, a sequence of random shouting, laughing and crying that bears no resemblance to human life.

An actor can’t play an emotion. They can only play a thought – and then, because they’re actors and that’s their brand of magic, the emotion appears without conscious effort on their part. An actor can’t ”act sad”, but they can run through their character’s train of thought about Aunt Lucy’s tragic death, and as they do, the tears come unbidden.

In the same way, the characters you write don’t just ”have” feelings. They think things. They react. They experience life. When you’re writing an emotional scene, work out what they’re thinking, and the emotional content of your story will flow naturally from that, rather than having to be imposed or provoked by you.

Emotion needs to be ”put” somewhere.  When an actor experience that emotion –  let’s say anger  –  they can’t just stand there and ”be angry”. They need to do something with it. Either they need a line to express it, or an action.

And so do your characters. No one just sits there and feels stuff. They look for a way to deal with it – in words or in actions. Even suppressing their feelings is effectively an action. So when you put a character in a high-emotion situation, particularly after an a revelation or reversal of some kind, think about the best action or the best line of dialogue to allow them to express, release, and deal with their feelings.  It will feel more real – and you’re helping the actor to play the scene, too.

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