How acting has made me a better writer (and it can you too!)
I recently completed performing in a run of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile. It was my third acting gig in the past year, and the first time I had a major role. I started acting because I wanted to experience first hand the art of stagecraft. And because I had begun work on my own play.
Playwriting is a unique art. Like any writing to get better you can read plays, lots of them. But unlike, say, novels or short stories, a play is meant to be performed. The writing is not the final piece to the playwriting puzzle. And what I’ve learned from performing is that acting can improve all aspects of my writing.
My biggest writing challenge is finding a voice for my characters. It’s the first thing I do when I start to develop the people that populate my stories. In finding their unique sound I can distinguish one character from another. I find their mannerisms, their habits, the way they move, any accent they might have, no matter how subtle, and the way they interact with the other characters.
In my novel Mesabi Pioneers the character who I felt had the most unique voice was Housell, and I found his voice by acting it out. I found his accent first, and then I moved through my office as though I were him, or as though he were inhabiting my body. Only when I found his voice did I feel him coming to life on the page.
It never dawned on me that this technique had anything to do with acting until I took to the stage as Simon Doyle in Murder on the Nile. I quickly found Simon’s voice; it was right there on the page. He has a unique rhythm to the way he talks, and once I discovered it in Christie’s words I found myself moving across the stage as Simon. I was inhabiting the character — or he was inhabiting me.
The power of that voice cannot be underestimated. Christie wrote dozens of novels in her life, as well as several plays, and each of them contain unique characters. It is each character’s voice that makes them unique.
I studied the script and memorized my lines. But at rehearsals I discovered that acting was more than just spouting words on cue. Conversations with other characters weren’t one-sided bits of dialogue tossed into a vaccuous abyss. They were back and forth exchanges, the words like tennis balls we bounced at each other across a net.
As each of us grew familiar with our roles, we delivered our lines with subtle differences. On stage, without scripts to guide us, we had to learn to feel our way through dialogue as though it were fresh and real, as though these were words we were speaking, not lines we were reciting. When Dr. Bessner tries to give me an injection, I am belligerently opposed. Which makes Dr. Bessner more adamant about calming me down, which makes Simon even more angry about her trying to give me a shot. That exchange isn’t in the script, but it arose out of the way we began to listen to each other as actors, to hear not only what the other character was saying, but how they were saying it.
This process of active listening really piqued my writer’s mind. My characters don’t exist in a vaccuum. They don’t speak in soliloquies. They talk to each other. As a writer I have to actively listen to what they are saying and how they are saying it. And as a writer of prose, that active listening extends beyond hearing what my characters say. It includes listening to the world around the characters. To the sounds of the trees rubbing against one another, or the way the wind whistles through the leafless branches. Or the birds chattering as they spread across a gray sky.
The act of actively listening, of engaging not only with my characters but also with the environment around them: that has informed my writing most of all. But there is a third piece to the puzzle, one that most writers struggle with: dialogue.
“Actors have an ear for dialogue.” -Michael O’Leary
The first act of Murder on the Nile is full of long passages of exposition. The job of those pages is to catch the reader up on a story that was orginally told through a hundred pages of the book. And yet even in her books Agatha Christie focuses a tremendous amount on dialogue, on allowing her characters themselves to tell the story.
That’s what playwriting is all about. Letting the characters tell their own stories, in their own voices, in their own words. Acting helps the writer hear the dialogue, because it is through the physical creation of a character that the writer can find the voice, and then actively listen to how that character speaks. Dialogue comes almost as second nature. To craft good dialogue the writer must actively listen to the way people speak, and allow her characters to speak with their natural voices. If the character has something important they must say, then let them say it the way they would say it.
We don’t speak the way we write. Often, we don’t speak in full sentences. Sometimes the things we say to one another don’t even make sense. Random bits of phrasing. Single word responses. Sometimes the emotion behind the words is more important than the spoken words themselves. Acting on stage, interacting with other characters, all this helps inform my writing, helps me craft better characters, and, I hope, better dialogue in turn.
ADDING TO THE TOOLBOX
Every character on stage has a place. No matter how small the role, they play a part in the story. Giving each character a voice, and allowing them not only the freedom to speak with that voice, but as a writer actively listening to them speak, and engaging with them without judgement — those are the lessons that I have learned from acting. Those are the tools that have already made me a better writer.
Find yourself a local theatre group. Get on stage. You’ll discover how it can make you a better writer, too.