Method to the Madness–How Acting Can Make You a Better Writer

DanielLast week we discussed one of the tactics used for creating great characters. The beauty of the Warrior Writer Boot Camp format, though, is that we appreciate that not everyone learns the same way. Not all tools are suited for all people. Thus, I would like to introduce you to another WWBC technique you can employ to not only create amazing characters, but also to craft believable scenes guaranteed to draw in the reader and never let go.

Method acting.

Now this doesn’t mean we have to take up living in a Dumpster for a month if we desire to write about a homeless person (though Daniel Day-Lewis would be proud), but it does mean that we have to use and develop our ability to empathize. Empathy can be defined as the ability to identify and understand somebody else’s feelings and experiences. But, it is also the ability to step into that person’s (character’s) perspective. Unless one is writing in omniscient, it will be critical to keep the POV camera where it belongs in order to gain the most impact from each and every scene.

I’ll give a few examples.

Example #1

PERSPECTIVE PROBLEM

At critique, one of my dear friends and fellow writers brought a selection from his science fiction novel, which happened to be written in first-person. The opening scene is a robbery of sorts and his protagonist, like most sensible folk, dives under a nearby table and hides. The narrative that followed was very clever and engaging, but I happened to notice one HUGE problem. Thus, I raised my hand and asked, “How can your character know all of this detail if he is crouched under a table at the other end of the restaurant? The most he will likely see is legs and shoes.”

The writer had gone to great lengths describing details and events that simply would be impossible to see from the protagonist’s perspective. What my friend should have done (and eventually did do) was to have his character relying on other senses, since his visual sense was handicapped by situation.

It was a simple detail, but one that made all the difference in the eventual quality of the story. The writer, by stepping into an authentic perspective, made the experience visceral and real. Now he was SHOWING and not TELLING. With the right use of description, my friend successfully transported the reader under a table at a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. Before we knew it, we were in the head of the protagonist, desperately trying to connect different voices and personalities to their shoes while searching for the nearest escape.

He greeted me the next week, beaming with pride for his reworked scene, bubbling with stories of him lying on his living room floor under a coffee table imagining what his protagonist would likely be able to see—method acting.

Example #2

PHYSIOLOGY PROBLEM

Another author and friend of mine brought a selection from his horror novel. In this scene, the protagonist (who starts out as a misguided petty thief) is with his buddies and they are robbing a convenience store right before a major hurricane hits. The Korean store owner pops out of nowhere, scaring the hell out of this motley group, and they take off toward the front door. Mere steps from freedom, the protagonist slips on rainwater that has spilled inside, and cracks his head on the counter, then floor. All good, but what followed was again a lengthy detailing of events that would be impossible for anyone in this situation to experience in this way.

Physiology would have taken over. That blow. The pain would have taken center stage. Voices would have become indistinct, and thus the sentences should have been shortened to a word or two to give the impression of someone who has been knocked senseless. Perspective would have changed. He (the camera) is now on the floor looking up. This needed to be consistent.

I challenged the author to think back to any time he’d been whacked in the head. Make a list of all things he remembered (or didn’t remember) of the experience. Stars in the peripheral vision. Blackness. Blurriness. Sounds. Were they dull or sharp? Pain. Sharp? Throbbing? Funny smells? What was the first thing he noticed when his head cleared? Voices? Faces? I advised him to then take that list and overlay it with the scene he wished to create.

Example #3

MULTIPLE PROBLEMS

One of the writers on Twitter bravely posted her prologue for public view. Being the nosy editor I am, I just HAD to take a look. This is supposed to be the beginning of a thriller—a young woman running from someone chasing her through a swamp. In this selection, I noted several oopses.

TIME.

There is the weirdest time shift I have ever seen. It goes from being evening at sunset to pitch black in a matter of three sentences. There is no steady progression of losing the light and the desperation that would ensue from that (a missed opportunity to create growing tension).

CONSISTENCY.

The author describes it as pitch black, as in can’t see your hand in front of your face black…but then describes the crescent moon. Any moon (even a crescent moon) would offer some light and negate the pitch black—the author really should have chosen one for consistency. It is supposedly pitch dark yet the protagonist sees/describes quite a few objects and critters that she would need light to see. Which is it? Dim light or no light?

PHYSIOLOGY.

This character fears for her life. Yet, a handful of paragraphs down in this prologue, there is a very lovely description of a sunset. Big problem. How many people running for their lives through an unknown swamp filled with snakes and alligators take time to notice the “pastel sky?” When humans are under stress, the brain takes blood from the cortical brain and diverts it to the mammalian and limbic brain (and the large muscle groups). That is part of the adrenalin response. Fight or flight. Out of self-preservation, the body shuts down higher thinking capabilities while kicking primitive senses into hyper-drive. Thus, if one truly steps into the shoes of this character running for her life, it would be physiologically impossible for her to make such flowery observations. Reptilian brain cannot process information beyond the level of the five senses (and possibly a sixth).

PACING.

The greater problem (and this is a style issue) is that this writer actually did a great job of creating tension. Yet, three sentences of poetic description of a sunset RUIN all that effort by pulling the reader out of the conflict.

Remember. Our goal as the author is to transport the reader into the head of our characters. Method acting is a way that we can create a genuine experience. There was nothing, per se, wrong with this writer’s prologue, but she missed great opportunities to create spine-tingling tension. When we step in the head of a character that has time to notice stars and sunsets and butterflies, we are subconsciously cued to not get too stressed.

Example #4

CHARACTER PROBLEM

Perspective is our greatest tool for creating great characters. We have to feel what they feel, notice what they notice so we can craft the world in which they live. This morning I edited a piece that had me banging my head on my keyboard. This author has a fantastic story, but his failure to truly empathize with his characters is KILLING—no, SLAUGHTERING—a great plot.

His female protagonist has just, hours before, witnessed her mother’s murder at the hands of Yankee renegades. Yet, nothing in her actions tells the story of a woman whose life has just collapsed before her eyes. She has romantic feelings for another male character. She is calm. She never gives the situation another thought. It is as if it is just another day of milking cows and saddling horses while making goo-goo eyes at the boy from town. Not only does this make her utterly unlikeable, but the reader doesn’t care about her losses…because SHE doesn’t care about her losses.

This writer, I know, is just excited to get the story rolling, but he is doing so at great expense to his characters. As authors, we have to think like actors (or profilers). We need to get into the heads of our characters and display the emotions properly. If someone is grieving, then we need to see that character going through the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Death and Dying—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. The event also must fit the character’s psychological profile. Is this character the kind who would stay in denial for years? Is she one to be angry? Would she get through all five stages quickly, or get stuck in depression? The writer needs to understand who this character is in order to slip into the correct head and craft the scene accordingly.

And this applies to the entire spectrum of emotion. Who is your character? I have heard people squeal and scream on the radio because they won free movie rentals from Blockbuster. Other people win ten million in the lottery and barely crack a smile. These are questions that have to be answered in order to craft believable characters and riveting scenes.

Warrior Writer relies heavily on learning from the experts, on drawing from unconventional sources of wisdom. It is a holistic approach that calls on the writer to dig deep inside to the true emotions, into the dark scary places where we are weakest and most vulnerable. Actors, in many ways, do the same. In fact, we could consider them to be the founders of our craft. Actors were the keepers of legends long before the authors. Actors kept stories alive on the stage and passed them on to audiences who would not be literate for centuries. We can learn a lot from their insight into the human condition.

Until next time…

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  1. #1 by Denise Robbins on October 13, 2009 - 4:37 pm

    Great article and tips for getting into a scene and a character’s head.

    Thanks!

  2. #2 by Jam on October 14, 2009 - 1:11 pm

    I’ve been taking acting classes for over a year now, and I have to say I learn almost as much about writing as I do about acting in them. Exploring different acting techniques can open up a whole world of skills and concepts you might never really think about otherwise. It’s also fantastic for learning how to connect and commit yourself and your emotions to the actions, the place, and the dialog–pure gold for writers.

  3. #3 by jasonamyers on October 16, 2009 - 8:30 pm

    Spot on! It was fun crawling under the table and looking around!! And I put Bob in the “winning the lottery and barely cracking a smile” group! He’d prolly smile, give a quick thumb’s up, and go cash his check.

  4. #4 by sniffits on October 16, 2009 - 10:53 pm

    I recall Alan Moore talking about how whenever he writes a character, he closes his curtains (so as not to be carted off to an asylum) and attempts to walk and talk just like the character. A lot of the time, I’ll carry a tape recorder and just act out a scene. I remember one time i got so into I was crying really hard (the character was crying) and freaked out my family.

    “No, no guys, I’m okay. I’m writing.”
    “you’re crying…”
    “uh huh!” *smiles*

    Also, just thought I’d drop this link in case you like Mr. Moore. It’s my favorite part of the interview.

  5. #5 by Chelle on October 17, 2009 - 1:41 pm

    This was just what I needed! I had an “aha” moment while reading your post! I’ve been blocked for some reason while plotting my new book. It’s in a different genre than what I’ve been working and I was beginning to wonder if I’d lost my mind. Great post!!

  6. #6 by pamkwill on November 18, 2009 - 3:42 pm

    Glad to know I am not crazy. I have always play acted my characters. I will act out the same scene over and over until I get it correct in my head. My kids just think I’m weird.

    Pam

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