Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Like an Actor

I once saw an interview with Ian Holm (think Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring) where he described this approach to his film roles: for each take of a scene, he would adopt a fresh angle.

The lines were the same.

The setting was the same.

But he always tweaked his delivery, just to see how it could be different. The end result was that he thoroughly explored his character and gave the director a whole slew of different options for the final film.

Are you stuck on a scene? Do your characters feel wooden? Or maybe something’s just not right, but you can’t put your finger on it.

Try writing from a fresh angle. Play around with your characters. Give them a stance, a voice, or a motivation you haven’t seen before. Make adjustments to the setting. What would change if the scene took place in the middle of the night? During a busy workday? First thing in the morning?

Or pick a side character – maybe someone who merely passes through a scene – and explore her backstory. Tweak her delivery, just to see how it could be different. You may be surprised by the end result.

Some writing friends I know have done this as a group. Everyone hands off a chunk of a current work in progress to someone else in the group. Then they each write the next scene of their partner’s work. It’s a challenging exercise for a writer.

On the one hand, you must try to enter into another author’s world and continue the story. Writing in an unfamiliar voice, exploring a different genre, tackling the type of writing you might never do on your own – all of this is great practice.

And, on the receiving end, you get fresh insight into your own work. Perhaps your partner will take the story in an unpredictable and interesting direction. Perhaps these new ideas will reveal the weak spots in your plot or setting. If nothing else, the combined effort should get your creative juices flowing.

As writers, we can often be so motivated to print off that fat draft of our manuscript that we focus primarily on productivity. Of course, this is important, or we’d be stuck in endless cycles of revisions.

But sometimes it’s worth it to playfully rewrite our work in progress, even if it doesn’t seem very productive at the time. What are some things you do to bring new energy to a project? What has (or hasn't!) worked for you?


  1. What a great idea! I'd never thought if it that way. Thanks Marissa.

  2. This is very cool. You never know when something like this will help you out of a bind!

    Excellent post, Marissa!

  3. I like this idea! Sometimes it is hard to figure out why a scene isn't working.

  4. A good exercise that sometimes works for me is to take a published book, favorite author, and rework some part of their story. In a way you may have done it. It gets creativity flowing and sometimes acts as a springboard to new ideas.

  5. Timely tips--thanks! A suggestion I tried once said to take an ending (yours or another's) and try rewriting it five different ways. Then, when you can't think of anything else--force yourself to try once more. It was that "once more" that gave me the breakthrough I needed :-)

  6. Excellent advice! It's funny because I used to want to be an actor. I think in a way creating characters is just the flip side of the coin of acting them out. We both have to spend time in other people's shoes. But how hard to alter a voice or to look at a scene from a completely different angle like this. Tough stuff.

  7. D.M. - I like that idea! And I'm drawn to the idea of revisiting some of my favorite worlds. :)

    Kenda - Another great suggestion! I could see how this would really present interesting opportunities. Sometimes my mind is so stuck on a certain ending...

    Carolina - I'm with you! I loved drama class in high school. I wouldn't be surprised to find that many writers love acting too.

    Thanks everybody!

  8. Haha! I know I am a frustrated actor at heart. The good thing about being a writerly hermit is there's no need to worry about stage fright. :)

  9. Well that explains how Ian Holm came up with that CRAZY FREAKY grab for the ring at the end of LOTR The Fellowship of the Ring!

    Your suggestion reminds me of the tiny bit of stage performance I've done--under a scary director who could turn a almost anyone into a performer. There's something to be said for thinking of yourself not as a "writer" generating the characters, but instead as that "director" barking critiques while the actors run through a rehearsal. It's helpful to blame them for being difficult, wooden, predictable. I like the idea of taking the role of the boss and giving them a piece of my mind... lovingly, toward a productive end. That's what the director of a performance does.

    Okay, characters, listen up! Stop reciting, stop "acting," and start selling it!

  10. Great advice--definitely worth giving a try!

  11. I see scenes in my head before I start writing, much like a movie. My challenge is getting the writing to feel like the movie scene in my head! Hopefully the actors in my head aren't too hackey! ;)

    Great post, Marissa!

    xoxo -- Hilary

  12. Love it, great idea! I've heard of famous authors who study screen-writing so why not.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!