5 Secrets Writers Can Learn from Actors

One thing I love about being a creative professional is the kinship with my fellow creatives. We understand the life — the instability, the random free time, and the unreliable flow of money — and we share a knowing-yet-slightly-sad smile when we meet. We get each other.

I had a chance this past April to talk with actor David Schmittou when he was in Indianapolis, playing “The Man in the Chair” in Beef & Board Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone (you can read my review of it here).

I wasn’t sure what I wanted when we sat down. I just wanted to see what I could learn from someone who got to be “someone else” professionally. Actors get to lie about who they are; writers lie about everything else.

So David and I sat outside at Paradise Café for nearly two hours, talking about the creative life. He told me about acting, what it’s like to be a working actor, and many of the different roles he’s played. He told me lessons he’s learned from working with people or taking classes from some of the biggest names in the industry.

That got me to thinking about how the keys to good acting are similar to the keys to good writing. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, short stories or content marketing, good writers can learn from good actors.

I didn’t write anything down. I didn’t want to disrupt his flow. As if I moved, it would startle him, and he would realize what he was doing and stop. So I made sure to remember the important points, and wrote them down in the car.

These are a few of the ideas I got from two brilliant hours with David Schmittou.

1. Create and absorb as many tiny details as possible.

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards' production of "The Drowsy Chaperone"

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards’ production of “The Drowsy Chaperone”

When you’re acting, these details will inform the way the character reacts in certain situations. It might even be a very tiny thing, like setting the needle on a record on stage in just the right place, even though no one is going to hear it, because that’s what we do in real life. Or making sure you put on side 1 in Act 1, and side 2 in Act 2. No one will see this, no one will know, but you will absorb it into your role, and it can have a powerful effect on your performance.

For Hemingway, details were crucial, even if you omitted most of them. That’s what he called The Iceberg Theory (the 1/8 of an iceberg that we see is supported by the 7/8 we don’t). If a writer knows a lot about a subject, he or she can leave certain things out, and the reader would still feel their presence. But if a writer doesn’t know a lot about a topic, and leaves certain things out, there’s a hollowness to the work.

An actor who only recites lines and offers up the barest of tiny details in their actions is wooden and not very memorable. A writer who does it is plain and uninteresting.

2. Live in the world of the play.

Don’t think of yourself as an actor on a stage, David said, be in that world. Absorb the character and imagine you’re him or her. Don’t think about after the show, don’t think about the argument you had with the director. Be present in that world, not this one. For David in The Drowsy Chaperone, he was in New York City, in his apartment, listening to his favorite record of his favorite musical, chasing away the blues.

For writers, especially fiction writers, this means being more than a story teller looking at their story as if they’re watching television. It means being in the world, notebook in hand, chronicling what you see, dodging bullets, storming the castle, and shooting at spaceships.

If you can immerse yourself in the world, you see more details, the experience becomes fuller, and you’re able to deliver a better performance/product to your audience.

3. Create a back story for your character.

Write scenes and short stories about characters. In his mind, David created a whole back story for the Man in the Chair, what he did for work, why he was single (“Since this was the 1970s, he had been married, but was unhappy, because he didn’t know what it meant to be gay,” David told me.)

Oftentimes, characters don’t come with back stories. They don’t have relationships spelled out. Did the Man in the Chair have friends? Why isn’t he with them? Does he get along with his mother? What kind of job does he have? Actors have to answer those questions themselves.

Writers, especially TV writers, will write create a “show bible,” which spells out character back stories, small details, likes and dislikes, and anything that might become important later on. They’ll write out scenes between characters that will never see the light of day, just to know how they would act and react.

If you can know why your characters are made the way they are, who influenced them, and why they like or don’t like other people, this becomes one of those very important iceberg details that shape your writing.

4. Base characters on yourself and other people.

David’s portrayal of the Man in the Chair was based on people he knew, and not past performances. He never even saw the play until he had already done the role once or twice. But he based the mannerisms and the back story on people in his life.

When Hemingway created characters for his stories, he modeled them after people he actually knew. He just changed their names. By using real people, he already had the back story written, he knew the tiny details, and he could more easily inhabit their world.

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway said:

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. . . You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

In essence, don’t make up people, because the characters will be fake. Instead, write about real people and make minor changes.

By using real people, you can create real characters who are emotionally rich and deep, not shallow caricatures or archetypes.

5. Listen carefully and react to the other actors.

Actors need to listen to their fellow actors on stage. Whether it’s traditional theatre or improv, listening is a crucial skill. You never know when an actor is going to make a mistake, say the wrong thing, or even change their mood or inflection of their next line. Actors have to be able to react to what was just said, not automatically say what they were going to say.

Sometimes fiction writers will “let the characters take over.” They let their characters act and react to what’s happening on the page. I’ve written stories where I have a basic idea of what should happen, only to have the two characters take the story in a completely different direction.

What’s really happening is the writers imagine how their characters would react in certain situations, and write that down instead. Rather than forcing actions and conversations to reach a certain end, the writer just holds on and goes along for the ride. This can only happen when writers live in the world of their story, create a back story for their characters, and base them on real people they know.

In the nonfiction world, sometimes “you” are the person you should listen to. Imagine yourself delivering your article as a speech, and write what you would say. Build on knowledge, feeding one idea into the next. If you can’t do step 2 without doing step 1 first, put the steps in the right order. This isn’t a mystery to be solved or a secret to be revealed. Listen to the way you would teach this knowledge, and write that.

When you get a chance to meet someone whose work inspires you, take it. When you get a chance to talk about the creative process with other creative people, take it. With a little lateral thinking, you never know what you might learn.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.