March 30, 2010

What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Actors

Writers have a lot to learn from actors. The emphasis on the character and being in the moment is something that writers (of fiction especially) would do well to remember, I think.

There are some good resources out there that link acting with writing. One great book is Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors, by Brandilyn Collins. It’s been a while since I read this book, but I remember thinking how valuable it was and incorporating suggestions into my work. She talks about personalizing, subtext in dialog, coloring passions, inner rhythm, and a lot more. I’m sure there are more great books like this out there.

Yesterday, I came across a fabulous YouTube video of Patsy Rodenburg talking about the Second Circle. Patsy was in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company (among others) and teaches all over the world. She coached Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Nicole Kidman, and Natalie Portman. The Second Circle is Patsy’s way of talking about being present. The First Circle is being totally inwardly directed, self-involved, of the past, curled in on yourself, not focusing on the outside world at all. The Third Circle is being totally outward directed, projecting yourself, of the future, controlling an audience, chest thrust forward and head back. The Second Circle is being in the moment, focusing on the other person or object, reacting genuinely to what’s around you. All three circles are important and are necessary at various times.

I think this is a valuable lesson for fiction writers. We spend a lot of time thinking about our characters' pasts and futures. Unless you are a writer who comes to the page without a plan ~ and if you are, you’re a better person than me! I don’t know how you do it ~ you’re always trying to figure out where the characters have been and where they’re going. I think you have to know this. Whether you figure it out ahead of time or think it through on the page, if you don’t know it, it’ll be evident in the work. However, everything that you know does not need to show up on the page. What shows up on the page has to be in Second Circle. It has to be in the moment of the point of view character.

The more in the moment ~ in the Second Circle ~ you can be, the better. Inhabit your character’s body. Give the five senses. Reach beyond the clichéd reactions to things that are surprising. Write what would really happen instead of what you’ve seen in the movies. Slow down. The more emotional and important the scene, the more you slow down. Have the characters react with each other, be sensitive to each other, have their own motives and cross purposes and varying awarenesses of what’s going on.

This is not to say there shouldn’t be flashbacks, but they shouldn’t be an indulgence on the writer’s part but instead a natural outflow of where the character is. Is there something in the past that prompts this particular reaction? Then put it in as a memory or a flashback, but it has to be vital to the story at that moment. And also it should be told in the Second Circle ~ in other words, it may be told in past tense or began with past past (whatever it’s called, when you’re in the past and go to the past of the past, so “she ran” to “she had run,” past perfect, I guess) but it should be in scene and slow down and be told just as if it were in the present of the novel. And there should be transitions. Take the reader by the hand and lead them there and back.

On a personal note, deciding to be in the moment has helped me out of the funk I was in. Woo hoo!

What I’m Reading Today: More Brooklyn. Just read the wonderful part about sea crossing ~ the loose bowels and contiuous vomiting and mean neighbors balanced with the wonderful roommate was fabulous and felt so real, yet beyond real.

PS I’m thrilled to say that the Georgetown Review has published my friend Eric Bourland’s poem “The Dancing Police” and my story “Wanting”! Congrats on a kick-ass poem, Eric, and thanks to the wonderful people at the Georgetown Review! I just got my copies in the mail yesterday.

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