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Scott Lax Blog

How Understanding Actors and Directors Can Improve Your Writing

I took two years -- off and on -- of acting in college. I was fortunate to study with the world-renown acting teacher and director, Alan Langdon. (His classes and my high school typing class may have been my most important classes regarding writing.)

While I'm a lousy actor, I wanted to understand the techniques of what went into acting, into character development and how characters moved plots along. I gained a lot respect for the craft of acting.

Much later, it helped me understand our actors when I produced a feature film, and later, wrote a play and worked with the director. (Good acting is incredibly hard – the easier it looks, the harder that actor has likely worked to make that so; conversely, bad acting, the kind you see so much of on TV shows, is lazy and self-conscious; but more on that another time.)

I learned more from Alan Langdon than I learned from any English teacher in college about writing. (I know there are good and great creative writing teachers in colleges and universities, somewhere, hidden among the legions of bad ones that end up discouraging their students.)

I tell my writing students that some acting teachers and directors, when their students are in the middle of a scene, will say, "Stop! Where are you in space? Where are you in time? What do you want? What are your physical and emotional states right now?"

If the answer is, “I don’t know,” then the director – and actor – knows there’s work to be done on character development, motivation, movement, and so forth.

I encourage writers to be the directors of their characters and say to their characters: (they might want to just say this silently to themselves, especially they're working at a coffee shop or the library): "Stop! Where are you? What does your environment look like? What’s your physical and emotional state? What do you want?" Etc.

My point, as are the points of many directors of theatre and other acting venues: know where your character is and what he or she wants. You can't act in a vacuum, and you should never place your written characters in a vacuum, either. They, like physical characters on the stage, must fully exist in time, space; and have emotional truths and physical needs, and all the other things that go into characters being human. You don’t necessarily need to tell the reader everything, but you as the writer need to have a strong understanding of your characters’ states of being. Otherwise, you’ll have wooden characters, but not nearly as interesting as Pinocchio.

My next post will be about using the Actor's Studio Method for your characters' dialogue. This is something I teach, and something that is taught by the outstanding writing teacher, Sol Stein.  Read More