Using Acting Techniques to Enrich Your Writing
by Michelle Hoppe


Do you often find yourself envisioning your book in your head?  Are you the sort of writer who closes her eyes to try and 'see' her characters on a stage, playing out their dialogue and actions?  If you have, have you also found yourself wondering afterward whether or not your sanity is still in tact?  Relax, you're not alone.  As I learned recently in a workshop given by fellow writers who are also actresses, acting and writing go hand-in-hand.  

Authors can use basic acting techniques in their writing to hone their skills.  For example, using the five senses sets the scene both on stage and on paper.  But because it is easier to see scenes on a screen, this presents a challenge for writers.  They must convey this same setting on paper and have it as visual as a movie production. 

All stage settings have a foreground and background. The foreground in a romance, however, is the relationship between the hero and heroine.  The background is what is going on around them.  Levels and direction in a scene will empower characters.  For example, someone facing the audience, or reader, has more power than someone turned at a 45-degree angle, just as that person has more power than someone at a 90-degree angle.  Use positioning for focus.

Other things to keep in mind while writing effective scenes: 

  • Talking heads are boring.  If characters are sitting at the beginning of a dialogue, make them stand at some point.  If standing already, move them around. 
  • Show how characters feel by their actions.  Body language (another whole workshop) plays a big part in setting the mood.  A standing person dominates the scene.
  • Acknowledge characters when they enter or exit a room, but don't linger on them.  Get them into or out of a scene quickly.  Half-moves are distracting to your audience.
  • Just as half-moves are distracting, so are two characters moving at the same time.  It takes away the focus from your main character and the reader gets confused.  Also, characters should move on their own lines, not other's, so the focus doesn't shift.
  • People have eye contact only ten percent of the time during a conversation.
  • Motivation (both internal and external) affects how a character moves.
  • Every scene needs a reason--what does the character want and why
  • A writer must create histories for characters even if it isn't all used in the book.  The more important a character, the more complex the history should be.

Some basic acting techniques which can be transferred to writing are:

  • You need physical action before psychological reason.  Listen, believe, be ready.
  • Physical actions should support psychological states.
  •   Use your personal emotional memory to convey emotion to the reader.
  • Go inside yourself to show emotions.
  • Use objects for their symbolic value.

One way to expand on these lessons is to take an improvisation class.  This can also help strengthen your writing, as well as help in other areas of your life.  It helps you come up with ideas, expand on ideas, and think on your feet.  It also helps with character development.  You can take obvious action one step further to the illogical to create interesting characters.

Some improvisation rules that will help strengthen your writing are:

  • Follow the follower--nobody should have focus on a scene.  Think how you can help your partner.
  • Don't say no!  Arguing gets you nowhere.  The idea is to add information to the scene, not end it.
  • Don't ask questions--it puts the burden on the other person.

To translate these rules into writing a romance, remember to have the hero/heroine focus on his/her partner, not himself.  Don't listen to the judgmental voice in your head. It will stifle you. Be in the moment and don't judge yourself or your characters.

Here are some Improvisation suggestions to use as writing exercises:

  • Select an adjective--what does it really mean?
  • Do an emotional switch in the middle of a scene.
  • Do the scene from a different point of view.
  • Rewind and replay--is this what you really want to show/see?
  • Yes, and ---.  Heighten the scene and move on.
  • Conduct a story.

Just as an actor focuses on his scene, a writer needs to focus on her writing.  A successful writer can't be thinking of other things or be distracted as emotion changes the perception of what the writer wants to do.

NOTE:  This workshop was given at a Chicago-North RWA meeting by Ruth Kaufman and Kelly Garcia.  Credit for the content of this article goes to them.  Thank you.


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Copyright 2002, Michelle J.Hoppe