If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?

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(If you’re new to this series on screenwriting, don’t miss reading: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?, It All Begins With A Screenwriter, and Emails To A Young Screenwriter.)

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I didn’t go to Hollywood to become a screenwriter.

Like those with stars in their eyes that came before me, and the greatly talented unknowns who are there right now, I wanted to be an actress.  I won’t bore you with the details.  If you’re interested, you can always read my book.  Let’s just say the fates decided on screenwriting: agoraphobia and acting don’t really mix that well.

Astrid read my book, so she knew I had studied to be an actress.  She wanted to know if it had helped my writing.

“Has being an actress and having knowledge of the process an actor goes through when getting into character help you understand how to develop your own characters.” she asked in her email.

It’s no secret that writers live in their heads – We’re in there poking around at our imaginations 24/7.  We’re either looking for a story or writing one, and unless we’re writing with a partner, we’re doing it all by ourselves.  That’s not only lonely but it’s limiting.  Where do we find all of our characters?

Through acting.

You can’t be an actor without observing people, and you can’t observe people from behind a desk.  Acting forces you into the world – you become a microscope for observing the human condition.  You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you.  You capture their quirks, their voices, their gaits, and you slip all of this on, trying it out for size.  You really do learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes.  You lose yourself and in your place you find characters.

Three Steps to Finding Characters

The best thing I ever did as a writer was to take improvisation classes.  Here is what was expected of us as actors:

1. Observe

2. Capture

3. Perform

As actors, we didn’t just work in the classroom.  We were expected to go out into the world and study people, bring back what we observed, and then, perform it.  Those same three steps are also invaluable to creating fascinating characters that one day you will slip into a screenplay.  And make no mistake, the more fascinating, and complicated, (yet identifiable) characters you put on the page, the greater the chance some executive (reading your script while in rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon) will be hooked.

But it’s that third step – performing – that helps you understand what to do with those original characters.  It teaches you about the structure of a scene – the beginning (a hook), the middle (complications and conflict), and the end (the payoff). When you perform in an improvisation you learn about tension, and how it helps a scene develop.  You can tell what is working in a scene and what is falling flat because you’re right there in the room with an audience. You can hear them laugh, feel their silences (both good and bad), you can sense if they’re watching, and (most importantly) if they’re caring.  Those are lessons screenwriters have to learn and take back to the workshop, to inject into our writing.

If you’re shy or an introvert as a writer, acting forces you to not be shy on the page. You can’t be an introvert in improvisations – it’ll push you past your comfort zone and stretch you as a writer.  It won’t be easy – it’s painful.  I always felt like throwing up when I was in improv class.  I used to pop Tums or Maalox because the butterflies were so huge.  But looking back, those classes are what started me on a path to becoming a good screenwriter: You will learn how to make your characters much more interesting – how to create multi-dimensional characters that an audience will want to watch. You will learn how conflict moves a story along and how to construct entertaining scenes. Once you’ve taken those improv classes then take a couple of acting classes too. As a screenwriter, you should understand what it feels like to play emotions – not just to feel them, but to perform them. Like a painter, you want to have a palette filled with a wide variety of colors (emotions) for your canvas (the screen), and you do that through acting and improvisation. I honestly don’t know how anyone can write a screenplay (or play) without having been an actor. If you haven’t tried acting or taken an improv class, stop reading right now and go find one. Seriously, sign up.

Someday you’ll thank me for it.

(Read the last post in this screenwriting series, 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting.)

(Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy – I’ll actually write you back!)

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