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Act Naturally: Why Writers Should Experiment With Theater

Currently, I live in an apartment with two actresses who are studying the Meisner method. Now, while this often provides much hilarity on my part (coming home to find my roommate snorting a line of sweetener off the table because her current character is a coke addict, for example) it has also made me think quite a bit about drama and theater. The thing is, I've always loved to act. I did plays in middle school, high school, and college, but until recently, I'd always seen acting and writing as two very different, very separate art forms.

But really, they're not that different when you get down to the core of it.

An acting teacher once told me that writers should act and actors should write. She said that the two go hand in hand. That sounds strange, doesn't it? Writing is a solitary exercise, something most people do alone, while acting involves being seen. Writing involves putting words on paper, while acting involves getting the words out of your mouth.

But then, when you think about it, both art forms are about people. Actors slip into a part, they become another person on stage and it's their job to make it real. And writers slip into a character, trying to convey a realistic, honest voice, developing the thought process and the backstory and the personality of a fictional person that needs to feel real to a reader. When you look at it that way, the two aren't that different at all.

I told you what that teacher said already, about writers needing to act and actors needing to write. Well, now that I get the similarity, I agree with her. So I've added a new piece of writing advice to my list. I think writers should experiment with theater.

Now, I'm not saying every aspiring writer should go out and audition for a Broadway show. As I said, writing is solitary, and some writers prefer to be alone, avoiding an audience at all costs, but there are ways to play with drama and acting that don't necessarily involve becoming the next big starlet. So below I've made a list of three acting exercises you can do to improve your character development.

1. A Day In the Life: For a whole day, preferably a day when you don't have too many social engagements, become your character. Call yourself by their name as opposed to yours. Eat foods they'd eat. Go places they'd go. Behave as if they'd behave. We did something similar to this in an acting class I took last year. We were required to introduce ourselves to strangers as a fake name, to embody this character. If you can do that with your own character for a whole day - maybe even just for a few hours - you might be surprised what you learn about them. How they walk, how they talk, the decisions they'd make. You may learn something new about them even!

2. Improv: Improvisation is a great way to play with character. If you can, take an improv class or join an improv group. Heck, you can even get a group of friends together and do some improv games (there are plenty online!). Step into spontaneous scenes as characters from your writing - both the major and the minor - and explore their reactions to different circumstances. Remember, improv doesn't have to be funny. Just focus on being in the moment and believable. What better way to get to know a character than to figure out what they'd do in a variety of situations?

3. Have a Reading: Are you working on a tricky, dialogue heavy scene? It could be a fun idea to turn the dialogue into a script of sorts and have friends help you stage a private reading of the scene. Reading it like a play and hearing others recite the lines might help you iron out the kinks in the wording. Or if you don't want friends to see, read each piece of dialogue to yourself. Be sure to do it out loud, int he same emotion your character would use. This way you can see whether or not the dialogue sounds natural. Good playwrights have some of the best, most natural dialogue. Why shouldn't your novel have the same?

See? Nothing too drastic! You don't have to be an Oscar winner, but playing around with theatrical techniques and acting exercises could truly be a great experience and an opportunity to get to know your character, helping you to make them as three-dimensional as possible.

So get to acting!
Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. writers should act and actors should write

    Could not agree more. Actually, I'd like to think it's my theatre background that helps me with dialogue and with character development. As an actor, I developed my stalking, er...observing skills and transferred that to writing. Paying attention to the subtle nuances of a character can add layers of richness and avoid one-dimensionality.

    Actors slip into a part, they become another person on stage and it's their job to make it real. And writers slip into a character, trying to convey a realistic, honest voice...

    Totally. The acting, the writing, the characters...EVERYTHING should feel natural and REAL. And I love your suggestions for how to go about achieving this. Except I may have a little trouble with number one, since my main character is a guy. :) And I think every writer should read his or her manuscript aloud. Every bit of it. Helps achieve that natural flow.

    Great post, Kody! And glad you've been experimenting with the theatre! My theatre professor actually taught my Shakespeare class and we looked at some of his plays from the actor's POV. Loved that.

  2. I always act out my scenes and dragging others in to help is a lot of fun. Although the neighbors probably wonder why I burst into random fits of yelling/crying...

    Great post!

  3. There's a book by Brandilyn Collins called Getting Into Character that talks about this. She uses acting concepts to fully develop characters, down to their individual habits and movements. I found it quite helpful.

  4. Great post, Kody! As a musical theatre fanatic and someone who pretends she can act, this is doubly true. I think of acting and writing as the same thing, just expressed in different ways. The medium of acting is more physical; the medium of writing much more mental and private. But both get the same basic ideas across.

  5. I love this. I took acting classes in high school and I can definitely see how using those exercises could help you get more in touch with your characters and improve your writing.

  6. What happens if someone realizes you're making it up? Do you have any recommendations for an escape plan should you blow your cover?

  7. Amazing it was very energetic article. Thanks for sharing you knowledge.


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Item Reviewed: Act Naturally: Why Writers Should Experiment With Theater Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger