Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques

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By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’ve had the good fortune to take several acting classes from the Piven Theatre Workshop. While the classes are are fun and interesting in themselves, I find they also have offered me insight into writing well-constructed and interesting scenes. Here are some of the techniques I’ve learned that apply to writing as well as to acting.

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Keep Passing the Energy

A significant part of the Piven technique centers on theater games. Many of these games focus on keeping the energy in the room high, by passing it from person to person, trying to grow it with each pass.

Written scenes also need to keep passing the energy, or they start to feel flat. Have characters in a scene pass the energy between each other as they interact. This will keep the scene immediate and draw in the reader more than just dumping the energy into a single character until it fades, taking the reader’s interest with it. If a scene with multiple characters isn’t working, see if one of the characters is dropping the energy instead of passing it. For instance, if two characters are having a fight, keep the anger flowing between them somehow. An easy way to do this is to alternate the action and dialogue between the two. As they argue back and forth, let the energy grow. Escalate the verbal and physical actions in response to this growing energy. Don’t make the fight so one-sided that one of the participants might as well be out of the scene.

You can also pass energy from action to tension and back again. There is usually a natural point at which the impulse of the action changes. Let the shift grow organically from what is happening in the story. Don’t drop energy if the action slows. Instead, shift the energy into internal tension rather than external action. This is another way to keep the energy flowing and keep the reader engaged in the story. Consider our arguing couple. Perhaps one of the participants is yelling, and the other is sitting there not saying anything. That doesn’t mean they aren’t reacting. Think about how this situation might look on a stage. The person who is not responding could be fidgeting, deliberately hiding behind a newspaper, tapping a foot. Let your character do that sort of thing too, and grow the tension. An actor isn’t just standing frozen if he or she doesn’t have any lines. Even if there is little or no action, there is always some kind of interaction.

Interrupted Destination

When you are writing a scene with more than one character, you are probably focusing on just one of the characters in the scene. This is usually the scene’s point of view character or the main character of the story. This character has a set goal and encounters setbacks, and overcomes obstacles present by the other characters. But what about the secondary characters in the scene? Their goals and setbacks are not usually very well defined. How can you round out their actions?

One of the techniques I learned in scene study was the idea of interrupted destination. If you don’t have a clear action goal determined by the plot, find one. But make it one that is constantly interrupted by what is going on. For example, the scene may be one in which you are having an argument with another character. You set yourself a goal of putting on your coat and walking out the door. But each time you start to make progress with this, the argument gets in the way. You may only make it half-way to the closet, or end up with your arm through one sleeve, or, quite possibly, manage to open the door. It doesn’t matter that you don’t succeed—having the goal gives your character an immediacy that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have just standing there screaming at someone else.

The idea of interrupted destination can be used to add a lot of depth to your secondary characters. Think of each character as an individual actor in a play. Even if they only have bit parts, they need to do something other than just stand and speak lines. They don’t need to have a complex goal for the scene, but if each one has some action they want to achieve, and they are interrupted and interrupt each other, the scene will take on an amazing richness. Your secondary characters will also take on additional depth. You can also use the interrupted destination technique to give a major character a physical goal in a scene where the major goals are internal.

Staying in the Moment

When you have memorized lines that you recite multiple times, it becomes very easy to only act, and never react. You know someone is going to make you angry, so you act angry. You know someone will surprise you, so you act surprised. It’s easy to just say and behave the way you know you are supposed to rather than reacting to what is going on. Most people do this with conversations, too—rather than listening to what is being said, most people are thinking ahead to what they want to say. But if you allow your character to be in the moment, instead of anticipating what is ahead, suprising things can happen, and you can build a more genuine interaction.

This applies to writing as well. Your character needs to react as well as act. Your character needs to genuinely respond rather than always anticipating.

Good scene structure stays in the moment. A well-structured story alternates between doing and responding. Stories aren’t just a string of scenes. They are an alternating strings of scenes and sequels. The scene is the action, the sequel the reaction.

A good scene has the following structure:

  • Goal—What the main character wants to achieve.
  • Conflict—The obstacles the main character must overcome to reach the goal
  • Disaster—The character fails to reach the goal.

For example, the main character wants to avoid an argument by putting on her coat and leaving before her husband notices (goal). Her husband comes in, and asks where she is going (start of conflict). She doesn’t respond, and continues putting on her coat. Her husband starts to argue, then yell at her. Finally, he tells her if she leaves, she can’t come back (disaster).

Then the character reacts to the disaster in the sequel. The structure of the sequel is:

  • Reaction—This is what keeps things immediate. The character has an emotional reaction to the failure before taking further action.
  • Dilemma—The character faces some tough choices because of the failure. Have the character react genuinely to the situation, and work through the options.
  • Decision—None of the choices are ideal, but the character has to go with one of them anyway. Time to decide. And that leads the character to a new goal, and a new scene.

In the sequel to the argument scene, the wife is shocked (reaction). She has to decide if she will still leave, or stay and participate in the argument she is trying to avoid (dilemma). She finishes putting on her coat and walks out (decision).

Even on a smaller scale, the character still has to react to what is going on. There is nothing more boring than a play where it feels like the actors are reciting their lines in a set way, regardless of what other actors are doing. Shake up things for your characters so they can’t anticipate ahead of the action. Keep your characters in the moment. Foist an external event on your characters and see how they react first. Then have them act on that reaction.

The “What’s Between”

Another scene study concept that is useful to look at from a writing perspective is something called the “what’s between.” This is, in essence, an actor’s version of “show, don’t tell.” The idea is to act the scene with a hidden tension in it. There’s some secret the actors know that they aren’t sharing, and it comes out in the tension of the interaction. Think about the hidden things in your story whenever two characters interact, and see how you can use them to add tension and energy. For example, suppose you have a father meeting a son for the first time. The mother has agreed to this meeting on the condition the father does not reveal the truth. In what ways would the father act differently under these conditions than he might otherwise? In what ways does the strain of the secrecy come out in the dialogue? In the father’s actions? What tension does the son pick up on? What tension does he miss entirely? Thinking in this way, exploring the “what’s between” in your story and how you can use it to build tension and character, will add that extra dimension and depth to your scenes.

There’s a lot to be learned by studying good actors and good acting techniques. Next time you watch your favorite TV show or movie, see if you can pick up other ideas for enriching your writing.

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Slow Writing

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Wikipedia defines the slow movement as “a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace.” Slow Planet, a slow movement community, says it’s “not about doing everything at a snail’s pace; it’s about working, playing and living better by doing everything at the right speed.” Slow Movement, another slow-oriented site, says the movement “aims to address the issue of ‘time poverty’ through making connections. … We want connection to people—ourselves, our family, our community, our friends,—to food, to place (where we live), and to life. … Our fast paced life has weakened these connections.”

The most well-known slow movement is slow food. Slow Food is a non-profit organization founded “to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” While slow food is clearly positioned in opposition to “fast food,” food that not only is provided to you quickly but is completely disconnected from its origins, it’s not the actual speed of the activity that is the central concern of the slow movement, but the re-establishment of connections lost when speed is overvalued to the detriment of all other aspects of an activity.

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The Slow Writing Movement

A quick poke around the internet reveals that in the past few years, a variety of people have seemingly independently advocated a slow writing movement modeled on the slow food movement. Here’s a sample of what’s being said:

  • [B]ack in February, I expressed concern at the accelerating pace of publishing and called (half-jokingly) for the creation of a Slow Writing Movement (SWM), modelled on the Slow Food phenomenon. —Andrew Gallix, writer and editor of 3:AM Magazine
  • Gretchen is positioning [Lindsay Waters’s article at Inside Higher Education advocating slowing our writing down] as a political movement in the making (“Slow writing will be like slow food! “) over at Facebook. —Thomas Strong, university lecturer in social and cultural anthropology
  • You’ve probably heard of the Slow Food movement. Why not start a Slow Writers Movement, where it’s all about appreciating the craft rather than rushing through it? —Michele Filgate, freelance writer and bookstore events coordinator
  • Just as there’s a “slow foods” movement, maybe there should be a “slow writing” movement. —Kitty Burns Florey, author of Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

There are as many different views on what such a movement would entail as there are people who endorse the idea. For some, slow writing means a return to handwriting, to pen and paper for first drafts or keeping a handwritten journal. Florey suggests you pick up a pen and “write a poem, start a diary, send a note to a friend, or … compose a love letter.” Beyond the fact that handwriting is a physically slower method of writing than composing on a computer, handwriting supporters such as T. Scott Plutchak, a university library director, contend that “[w]hen erasing and revising is as much work as it is using that technology, you think much more carefully about every line before you even begin to write your sentence.”

Many of us love our computers because typing allows our fingers to keep up with our thoughts. Handwriting advocates claim, however, that while being able to write faster might seem to be more efficient, it encourages sloppiness. Plutchak says, “When you’re not forced to slow down, and carefully choose every word, then any word will do. And when you’re not being careful about the words you choose, you’re not forced to be careful about your thinking.” But Anne Trubek, an associate professor of English, contends that this kind of argument is based in nostalgia: “[w]hatever we use to write, there will be a shortfall between conception and execution, between the ideas in our heads and the words we produce.” She argues that being able to write faster frees up time to think.

Handwriting advocates don’t deny that scribbling in notebooks is not the most efficient method of writing, but argue that we aren’t just copying fully-formed ideas onto the page. Rather, it is only in the act of writing that one’s thoughts are worked out. Russell Hemsworth, a stationery store owner, says, “Everybody is so inundated with electronic devices, there are people who just want to slow down a bit. … [return to] that slow meditative state of enjoying your own thoughts … The beauty with having a notebook is that you write anything random down. You can always cross it out later.” Novelist Tayari Jones, writing about her decision to start journaling again after a hiatus, says, “my journal was a casualty of the ‘Published Author’ mentality that every word I put down must be for public consumption. Who had time to scribble privately in a spiral notebook when there were novel to work on, essays to outline, blog entries to compose, etc.? I had forgotten the free-writing pleasure of working my random thoughts out of the page.” Plutchak semi-seriously says, “I just don’t know what I’m thinking until I’ve written it down.”

For others, slow writing does not (necessarily) mean handwriting, but rather taking time to appreciate the writing process, not just the destination. Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at the Harvard University Press, wishes that academics would slow down the pace at which they produce new articles, noting that writing churned out “to add another line to the cv” is often incoherent in thought and style. Naomi S. Baron, in Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, describes slow writing as writing that has been revised and edited.

While I can see the merit in handwriting, ultimately, I think that slow writing is less about choice of technology and more about attentiveness to the work. For me, composing at the computer hardly encourages an “any word will do” mentality. I agonize over word choice far more now than I did when I wrote longhand. I certainly revise more. Then again, I’ve never really composed anything of length by hand as an adult. Maybe slowing down is simply a sign of maturity and has nothing to do with what technology is being used.

And perhaps whether one writes quickly or slowly also depends on one’s instinctive approach to writing. Gallix observes that “the digital age has simply compounded a problem caused by the increasing hegemony of one school of writing (the Ionic) over another (the Platonic).” While ionic writers shun editing, claiming their work appears to them “fully-formed in a blinding flash of inspiration,” platonic writers agonize over every word, revise and edit and throw away and begin again and—despite all that—are never completely satisfied with their work. It seems unlikely that forcing spontaneous writers to write by hand would magically turn them into ones for whom every single word choice is a struggle. Maybe at your core, you either are a slow writer or are not.

While I was loath to revise when writing by hand for school assignments, it was hardly because I thought my writing was perfection. Rather, my lack of revision was inevitably because there wasn’t enough time to edit and rewrite the entire manuscript before the assignment was due. If I instead look at my writing produced without a deadline, I see an entirely different pattern, one in which I epitomize the slow writer. I still have an unfinished manuscript of a novel first conceived of when I was thirteen. At this point I’m not sure how many versions I’ve discarded, how many times I’ve begun again. And still, I have hope for this story. This is slow writing. Here is what some writers have to say about writing slowly.

Writers On Slow Writing

The process of writing, and rewriting, my third novel compelled me to acknowledge that I’m not and will never be a fast writer. I am not a procrastinator or precisely a perfectionist but it takes me years to synthesize character and story, to see the connections (psychological, metaphorical, moral) that I need to see, and to be able to articulate all these things clearly. I think through a story by trying different things out on the page, a kind of slow sculpting in prose. It’s taken me time to embrace my inner slowness. —Catherine Bush, novelist

It wasn’t that I couldn’t write. I wrote every day. I actually worked really hard at writing. … I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn. … I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. [At this point, Díaz considers giving up on writing, but ultimately decides to give it another try.] There were no sudden miracles. It took two more years of heartbreak, of being utterly, dismayingly lost before the novel I had dreamed about for all those years finally started revealing itself. And another three years after that before I could look up from my desk and say the word I’d wanted to say for more than a decade: done. —Junot Díaz, on the 10 years it took him to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I think that a regular—if not daily—engagement with your work is crucial. Without that engagement, the writing can wither and die, like a plant that hasn’t been tended. Writing is a living thing, after all, isn’t it? Daily engagement doesn’t always result in the production of pages, though. It can lead, instead, to a realization, an idea, a new way of structuring the work, some character development, some revision. You might write and write and write one day and feel really good about what you have produced, come back the next day and delete every sentence but one, start over, and then do it all again the day after that. You might struggle for several hours just to force out one paragraph, which you hate. You might write an excellent scene that has no place in your manuscript. These are all good writing days in my book. —Nancy Rawlinson, freelance writer and editor

Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs. Research has shown that time pressure leads to tunnel vision and that people think more creatively when they are calm, unhurried and free from stress and distractions. We all know this from experience. Your best ideas, those eureka moments that turn the world upside down, seldom come when you’re juggling emails, rushing to meet the 5pm deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you’re walking the dog, soaking in the bath or swinging in a hammock. —Carl Honore, journalist

Slow Writing on a Deadline?

I started thinking about writing slowly the last time I found myself singing “Somebody Kill Me” from The Wedding Singer. If you aren’t familiar with the Adam Sandler song, it goes like this:

Oh somebody kill me please,
Somebody kill me plee-ase,
I’m on my knees,
Pretty pretty please kill me.

I want to die.
Put a bullet in my head.

“Somebody Kill Me” has become my go-to anthem for writing on a deadline. The excessive angst makes me laugh and keeps me from actually doing myself in. At the same time, all I can think is that writing is not supposed to make me feel this way. While it’s comforting to know that being a slow writer is not particularly unusual, and that there’s even a growing movement to celebrate slow writing, the dilemma that led me to this topic in the first place remains: how do you reconcile slow writing with writing on a deadline?

As Bush says, being a slow writer is not about procrastination. Like Diaz, when I feel like killing myself it’s not because I’m staring at a blank page. I am writing. That’s what’s so frustrating about it. But it takes time to research and read (not skim) and piece together the ideas you want to work with, and that often leaves a less-than-ideal amount of time for actual writing. Oh, sure, if I could just bang out 5,000 polished words in five hours as John Scalzi apparently can, then I’d be golden. But slow writers, as Rawlinson points out, often hit a lot of dead-ends and throw out a lot of writing before they end up with something they’re happy with. And, like Honore says, more often than not the a-ha! moments that make writing worthwhile don’t come to us while singing “pretty pretty please kill me” in the face of a deadline, but when we’re not actively thinking about the work at all.

That’s what a deadline denies you: the time to let your ideas simmer. Of course, I understand the necessity of deadlines. And I even appreciate the kick in the pants they provide. Indeed, having a deadline used to provide me with enough incentive to overcome my natural tendency to write slowly. I always had something to turn in at the deadline—even if I was convinced it was crap. But the more time I spend as an editor and teacher—evaluating others’ work—the more I find my reluctance to turn in subpar work overwhelming my inclination to get things done on time. As a deadline approaches, I am inevitably torn between the two competing desires.

So how can a slow writer deal with writing on a deadline? Here are some ideas for approximating slow writing when time is limited:

  1. Think of the version you turn in as a draft, rather than a set-in-stone final version. It’s not unusual for writers to publish more than one version of articles and essays and stories (J.D. Salinger published an early version of The Catcher in the Rye as “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” in The New Yorker). It’s common practice to put out new editions of many non-fiction books. Some writers have even revised their novels after publication. You can revise later too.
  2. Limit the amount of time you spend researching (thus freeing up time to write). The world will not end if you miss a pertinent source or two. Chances are, you have more information than you can use already. If you find something brilliant after-the-fact, you can always incorporate it in a revision (see #1).
  3. Cut your big ideas down to size. Complete a realistic portion of your project in time for the deadline, and continue working on the remainder afterward. What are the requirements of your assignment? You’re probably writing more than you need to. Write a chapter, not a book. Write a book, not a series.
  4. Don’t get distracted. With the deadline approaching for Project A, it’s not the time to start outlining Project B or researching Project C. If you do have an idea related to another project, make a note of it and set it aside.
  5. Do take breaks, but try to limit yourself to activities where your mind can wander and grapple with the issues you’re trying to address in your writing. Go for a walk, wash the dishes, play with your dog. (Don’t start doing more research! See #2.)
  6. Go on a writing retreat. If you’re not getting anything done because you keep getting interrupted, book a hotel room for a night or a weekend so you can eat, sleep, write—and procrastinate—on your own schedule.
  7. Negotiate an extension. Deadlines can sometimes be arbitrary. Unless you know there’s a specific reason the deadline has been set for a particular date, if you’re really struggling, it generally doesn’t hurt to explain your situation and ask for a modest extension.

Ultimately, I don’t think you can really practice slow writing when you have a deadline. For that reason, I think it’s important to always have a slow project on the go to maintain perspective, to remind you that writing can be meditative as well as stressful. Whether that project is a handwritten journal or a never-ending novel-in-progress—well, that depends on your definition of slow.

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