Write On! What Writers Can Learn from Actors
by Michael Lee, script consultant, blogger, and author of My Frankenstein

The only way to get a reader or an audience interested in your story is to create an emotional bond. That doesn’t necessarily mean to make your hero a lonely orphan, who grew up under the staircase. It means, create a character the reader or audience can picture as a vibrant, active, realistic person.

Sometimes I think bad writing is the result of writers trying too hard to be directors. They think about swooping camera angles, grand FX shots, cars crashing, guns firing, armies smashing into each other. And yeah, all that is incredible and super cool. But it doesn’t mean anything without an emotional center. This is true of writing. This is true of directing. And it is certainly true of acting.

Now I’ve never acted. The idea of it terrifies me. But some of the best writing advice I ever received came from the acting world.

The Spine: The biggest lesson I’ve learned from the world of the dramatic arts is how to structure scenes. Scenes don’t just happen in acting. There is no randomness. There is a logical series of events. There is action and reaction from the beginning all the way to the end. That gives scenes shape and direction. And it’s very noticeable when writers leave that out. That’s when you have characters suddenly blurt out lines that have nothing to do with the previous parts of the conversation. That’s when you have two characters talk about things they should already know. Having a good spine to your scenes means a character only does something because he’s reacting to something in the scene.

An exercise for both actors and directors is to work backwards. Take the last action in a scene. That action is caused by the action immediately preceding it. And that action was the result of what happened immediately before it. And so on all the way to the beginning of the scene. This kind of back and forth rhythm makes the scenes go quicker. It helps you identify dramatic dead weight that needs to be cut. And it makes the characters more interesting because they are active.

Stay in the Moment: Actors stay in character until they hear the word “cut!” No matter how fanciful the material, what’s happening in the script is real, 100%. As writers we have to embrace that reality too. Often, ironically that means saying “no.” It can be very hard for us sometimes because we control everything. We can have a character do something completely against his nature. We can break the laws of physics, logic and everything else … if we so choose. But it’s going to stand out. That’s why commitment means saying “no.” We narrow ourselves. Our characters and settings then become less general and more specific. Often a defining trait of a character isn’t what he can do, but what he can’t. A defining trait of a setting isn’t what can happen here but what cannot.

Remember the opening to the film Tootsie? Dustin Hoffman is playing a sick, dying character and the director wants him to get up and walk several steps so the audience can see him. Hoffman walks off the stage in a huff. Why? Because the director is asking him to violate the reality of that moment. A dying man can’t get up and walk a few steps. Writers need to have that same kind of commitment to their stories. Characters and settings have to be defined and specific if they are ever going to be real.

Drama is Other Characters: One of the things I picked up quickly is that it’s very hard to write a scene with only one character. Two or more is easy. If you really know your characters and your situation, than the scene practically writes itself. Drama normally requires other characters. That’s why actors block out everything else around them, the film crew, the live audience, whatever, and focus on each others eyes.

Sometimes you have to write about a character who is by himself. And those scenes sometimes are very tense. But you can’t lose that essential confrontational nature. This is still a struggle for the character, otherwise the scene just feels tacked. It will lack the life and vitality of scenes with other characters. Things can’t just happen to a character, events have to affect him somehow.

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The key to good storytelling is drama and it’s essential to remember that drama as an art-form predates short stories and novels by several centuries. Long ago the ancient Greeks discovered the formula for a compelling story; create dynamic, interesting characters and set them in opposition to each other. It’s a lesson we as writers should always remember.

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Michael Lee, author of My Frankenstein, is a script consultant and judge who has worked for such contests as the PAGE Awards, the Gimme Credit Screenplay Contest, and the Las Vegas Film Festival. He currently blogs about all things entertainment-related at TheWrap.com. He’s a longtime fan of Dr. Who, Hammer Horror, Godzilla, James Bond, Star Wars, and the Food Network. Somehow it all makes sense.

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  1. […] Thanks, by Michael Lee, author of My Frankenstein, for calling in to the show. Read Michael’s guest column on What Writers Can Learn from Actors. […]

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