What do actors know about writing? How does acting help with writing?
That would be an interesting fact, if it were correct. However, there are so many actors who write books, many of whom you’ve probably never realized. A few well-known actors who have written works of fiction would include: Steve Martin, Laura Graham, Carl Reiner, Molly Ringwald, and Gene Wilder. The list goes on and on, but that should allow you to see that many of the people you know from the screen and stage have done marvelously well to translate their craft of storytelling to the page. In fact, I would venture to say that, as an actor, one would have many tools that allow them to succeed quite well as an author.
A Star is Born… Well… I was, anyway.
From an early age, I have been telling stories. Not only in my writing, but also in front of an audience, whether it be my family in the living room of our house or hundreds of strangers who paid for a ticket. While my process for developing characters and stories has changed, the joy I feel from storytelling has not. I am always learning and trying to improve and I think that a lot of my improvement has come from my experiences of being an actor, both on and offstage. Below I will share with you the ways in which I feel that acting has influenced my writing and how you can use the acting process to do the same for you.
“An Actor Prepares.”
Like authors, an actor’s primary goal is to communicate a story to an audience. When actors take on a role, they embody a character, analyze the script, rehearse their lines and blocking over and over, learn from other actors and directors, and continue to dive deeper into the overall story as best they can to ensure that it is communicated in the best way possible.
The process an actor takes to make all of this happen may sound familiar as an author and that is because it is! Below, I will list the different things that we deal with as authors and how I view them from an actor’s point of view.
1. “Who Am I?” (2-4-6-0-1?)
The first thing we need to know as an actor can be asked as the famous line from Les Misérables: “Who am I?” We want to know where the character we are portraying is from, what they do for a living, what their status is in the world and in their family, and so much more. The reason for this is because we tend to use this information to build our own interpretation of the character from which to grow. When it comes to characters in a show, oftentimes many choices are made for us, but we can use those choices to influence our own, put our own spin on it. We bring parts of ourselves into the role, which affects the overall performance and perception of them.
As authors, we must do the same thing when creating characters. We need to look at who our story is about, where they are from, what brought them to be in the predicament they are in, and what they want in the grand scheme of life. Their desire, their misbelief, and what drives them can all be the same thing, or different things, but each influences the character in its own way.
When embodying a character, I tend to use movement to further show who they are and I use Laban Movement to guide those decisions. I will decide which method the character moves and why, thinking about if they are leading with their pelvis or chest or head, and how heavy their gait is or not and why. This helps the audience see even more into their personality, and background, without saying a word. This is something I try to translate into my writing with each character in some way, too. Movement is just as important as how a character speaks, sometimes helping the audience or reader to see whether one or the other is telling the full truth. I highly suggest you look up more about the Laban technique so that you can learn more about all the different parts of it and use it in your own process.
Another important factor to consider is that setting is a character in itself. A person’s surroundings will often influence who they are in some way, so be sure to think about that when crafting your characters. When cast in a role, actors will usually research the time period and location that the show takes place as a way to inform their decisions. This makes the world and characters also feel more entwined, uniform. The more you can do to make the world and characters feel as one, the better it will be for your audience and reader.
2. “Are You Talkin’ to Me? Because You Should Be!”
Many authors tend to have trouble with dialogue, one of the main reasons being that they don’t feel it is organic. Though, some may say that it can be too organic. Some ask, “What does organic mean? Do you mean like the avocados I buy in the store?”
All that to say, dialogue is hard. But, it can be easier.
One of the first things actor’s will do when looking at a character’s dialogue in a script is find out if they have an accent/dialect, or specific speech pattern. While that may not be the most important aspect of a character, it will heavily impact the perception of them, which is important. When looking at how a character speaks, you want to think of a few different things:
Where do they come from? Does their place of origin tend to use a specific accent? If so, are there multiple dialects of said accents? Which one do they have and why? Are there any words they tend to overuse? Are they fond of contractions or do they speak in a way that avoids them completely?
Those are all good questions to ask when building a character’s speech. As mentioned with movement, you can showcase the subtext with one or the other. Subtext is something that is important to study when acting and writing as well. When a character says something, oftentimes they don’t share their full thought in their words. Their actions, movement, and inflection can help show this and we must try to think about all of this when crafting our dialogue.
When it comes to subtext and acting, I often write an alternative line of text above or below the actual line. I would memorize that subtext as a way to influence my delivery of the written line and it helps immensely in developing the character.
When it comes to my writing, I will sometimes do this still in different ways. Sometimes I will write a character’s thoughts, sometimes more than necessary, knowing that I will go in and rewrite a thought to be description or the opposite if I decide to do so. Overall, I find that my description and dialogue both are helped by this process.
When writing conversations, though, don’t forget the major difference between dialogue and description: dialogue is spoken, so speak it! As an actor, one of the first things we do when cast in a new show is called a read-through. We sit around in a circle and read through the entire show with the whole cast, while the stage manager (usually) reads the stage directions. When writing your dialogue, either say it aloud yourself, give your friends or family some of it and role-play while speaking it aloud, or have a computer software say it aloud for you. The important thing is to hear it spoken because hearing it can reveal many things you never thought about or realized before.
Think of how you spoke the lines, how they felt, and whether or not they should be changed to feel better when read aloud. Once you’ve figured that out, also keep in mind their speech patterns, dialects, or accent and decide whether you want that to be included in the dialogue itself or the description of how they speak. Once you’ve gotten that done, your dialogue should feel more organic and thoughtful. Each character will feel more fleshed out and your reader should be able to look at a conversation and tell who is speaking which line, which is always a good sign.
3. “And… Action!”
When it comes to fight scenes and overall action, I find it incredibly helpful to think about these scenes as though I am the one fighting. Having learned stage combat, I am able to use that experience to inform my characters’ movements and thoughts in fights. In stage combat, you tend to see actors use rapiers, daggers, staffs, and more. I also come from a background of hunting which allows me to think back on my experience wielding a gun or bow and arrow to use in my writing, deepening the experience for the reader.
You can do the same thing! I’m not saying you have to go out and get stage combat training, go hunting or fishing, or even touch a weapon. However, it would be helpful for you to at least hold a sword, or whatever weapon you choose, if your book contains such things. I say that because it helps immensely in the description of how it moves through space and how it feels in your hands. If you cannot do this, or don’t want to, you can also watch videos online and find plenty of other resources to aid in the process. Immersion is never a bad thing!
4. “And…CUT! Let’s do it again!”
Once you have done the research, memorized the lines, blocking, and choreo, and know your entire role, you are ready to perform the show rehearse! That’s right. You didn’t think you could just memorize all that and think it’s ready to go in front of a paying audience night after night without putting it all together with the rest of the cast and getting feedback, did you? I hope not! The editing process for authors is a lot like the rehearsal process for actors. You’ve done the basic work of the first draft and that’s great, but this is where the magic really starts.
When rehearsing a show, you start to play around with the character, get a feel for how you can deliver certain lines or move a certain way and how it affects the performance. You see what works… and what doesn’t. That’s the magic of rehearsal. Actors tend to deliver the lines in multiple ways to see which fits their interpretation of the character and then are given additional feedback from the director(s). They then alter their performance to match the feedback, if it works.
Like rehearsal, you must try different scenes, cut what doesn’t work, and flesh everything out as much as possible to create a polished final product. However, keep in mind that even the biggest productions have workshops and open rehearsals so that they can gain additional, vital feedback from the public before it’s considered ready. The same goes for you as an author.
You should reach out to readers to do your Beta reading, ask guided questions for you to get the feedback you need, and then do the same with an ARC team before finally putting your book out into the world for all to see.
5. “The [Novel] Must Go On”
As every actor knows, the show must go on. That applies to us as authors, as well. There will come a time where you find yourself trying to edit for the thousandth time, where the book has been in the hands of Beta readers, ARC team, an editor, a proofreader, your significant other, your mailman, your dog, and all your cousins. However, no matter what, know this: The show must go on. I say that to you as an author to mean that: No matter how many times you’ve edited your book, no matter how many ideas you have for new characters or scenes, there will come a time that you must publish it and say “I’m done. This story is ready.” It may be hard, you may want to rip it up and start over, but you shouldn’t do that.
Think about all the hard work you’ve done since the beginning: the concept, the first line you wrote, the first character you met in your head, the first time you saw the cover, the first time you told somebody the story and they loved it, and everything else involved. Now, think about how great it will be when you see your name on a physical book, sitting on a shelf in a bookstore, a friend’s house, or even your own nightstand. Just thinking about that probably gives you goosebumps, right? Well, it should, because it is exciting!
“Life Can Be Like the Movies… and Books!”
Every night, as I am about to enter the stage in a show, I always have a bit of nerves. Usually, I take a few deep breaths, take a moment to get into character, and then remind myself why I am doing this: to tell a story, a very specific story that only we can tell. Then, I tell it the best I can. The same goes for you and your book.
I hope that you are able to incorporate some of these methods into your process and allow yourself to be the actor, director, writer that you have already been. Your blurb is your audition, your editing is your rehearsal, and your published novel is your performance, but remember… the show must go on, so don’t stop.
Keep learning, keep growing, keep developing your world, characters, and stories. At the end of the day, keep writing. Your story is as unique as you are, so please don’t hide it, or yourself, from the world.
There are billions of people in the world and at least one of them needs to hear your story.
About Lane Northcutt
Lane Northcutt is an actor, writer, photographer, director, and creative currently living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Lane is the author of the YA Dystopian novel, The Delivery Co., which is his debut novel and book one of The Delivery Company series, in which the sequel is set to release late 2021. Lane is also the host of the writing-centric podcast, Indie Know, which can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more. When Lane is not writing or performing, he is often found indoor rock climbing, playing video games, and spending time with his wife, Shannon. Lane’s books can be found wherever books are sold and you can find more information or contact him via his website www.lanenorthcutt.com.