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Writer’s Craft #54 – Borrowed from Acting

January 9, 2012

James Pailly


James Pailly used to work in film and theatre and now works in television news. He’s been a writer, director, and occasionally—often unwillingly—an actor. His current project, The Tomorrow News Network, is a series of short stories which will appear at tomorrownewsnetwork.com starting January 9th. You can also visit his blog at planetpailly.wordpress.com.


I was never a good actor. I was cast as a dead body twice and a zombie two other times, but what I learned when I wasn’t dead or undead helped improve my writing.

Actors begin getting into character by asking certain questions, such as:

  • What does my character want?
  • Why does he/she want it?
  • What obstacles are in the way?
  • How does my character plan to overcome them?

Writers can ask these questions too, not just for one character but for all of them.

Many actors also draw upon life experiences, reliving good or bad memories during a performance to add emotional impact. Most of us have never stood on a new planet, fought epic space wars, or gone drinking with Chewbacca at the Star Wars Cantina. But we’ve all felt joy, fear, or comradery at some point.

My acting friends tried to teach me—unsuccessfully—to tap those memories, but stage fright made it too hard. Sitting alone with a pen and paper is different. It’s easier to go back to the best and worst days of my life and let them seep into my words.

What ideas have you borrowed from other fields to improve your writing?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2012 10:27 am

    YES! I majored in creative writing in college, yet the class that most improved my writing was an intro. acting class, which gave me *the* best lessons in “show, don’t tell”.

    One of my prose pet peeves is when characters talk and talk with no description of physical action. People *do* things while they talk, and the lessons of that acting class help me bear in mind the kinds of things they do and what emotions different actions best convey. If a script is well-written, a character’s reaction to something that makes them sad (or angry or afraid or what-have-you) isn’t to *say* “I’m sad (or angry or afraid or what-have-you)”. A good script–and a good actor–will show it through physical cues. Incorporating those kinds of cues into my writing allows me add a deep emotional layer without using blatant “feeling words”.

    I suspect that most writers would benefit from an acting class of some sort.

  2. krysia permalink
    January 12, 2012 3:09 pm

    I have only ever been in one production. Shakespeare’s “As you like it”. I was forester #1, and I actually had a fair bit to say for essentially an extra. The other foresters and I were on stage almost every other scene and mostly we just goofed off in the background (which is what we were directed to do). The experience made me think more of what’s going on around the main characters and making the scene around them more interesting. Other characters have reactions too, especially if your main characters are acting obnoxious in a crowded room.

    • January 13, 2012 12:36 pm

      I love Shakespeare. I did stage crew for a few productions, and I had no idea what was going on most of the time, but the actors get so excited that it’s just infectious. You have to enjoy working on it.

      I’m glad you learned something for your writing.

  3. January 28, 2012 8:15 pm

    I once worked at Zoesis, writing programs to animate characters for entertainment software. We studied The Illusion of Life, a book by Walt Disney animators. One of the rules they laid down was, Everything must tell the viewer about the characters in addition to whatever else it is supposed to do. If you can’t think of a way for the main characters to act in a scene that is unique to their character, throw it out and write something different.

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