Learning from Actors.

Started by Gyppo, December 03, 2020, 12:43:52 PM

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   This is a long one.  I could halve it by just giving you a set of 'rules' to follow, but you are more likely to think about them or even use them if I also explain the why behind them.


   I make no excuse for often drawing parallels between writing and acting.  Particularly when it comes to creating and maintaining characters.  This because one of the easiest ways to prevent your characters becoming two dimensional cut-outs is to see their world through their eyes, not yours

   As a writer one part of your job is to be the stage director, making sure they are in the right place at the right time.  To provide them with a place to 'strut their stuff'.  But that's just the setting and the plot you want them to play out.

   The major part is giving them a personality, a set of values and traits which brings them to life.  This is more important than their physical description.

   In this respect you are like a 'method' actor, jumping from one player to another, seeing what they see, reacting in ways which are true to character, and not  - generally - spending too long in deep philosophical thought.   Stories need movement, sometimes subtle and sometimes violently disruptive.

    Normal and mundane is the enemy here.  If the reader recognises too much from their own everyday life then they won't want to turn the pages and keep reading.  A story is like a shark, it has to keep moving forward to stay alive.


   So what has all this got to do with acting?  What can you, as a  writer, learn from actors?  Quite a lot if you're willing.

   My own first insight into how acting works came when I was still at school.  Although it's been reinforced since by personal experience in arena show performances and live storytelling sessions.

   A small group of us, on a trip organised by our English teacher, went to the Salisbury Playhouse, in Wiltshire, to watch a play and then talk to the actors afterwards.  I didn't ask many questions, but I learned a lot.

   I can't recall the name of the play, but it was some kind of fast-moving 'bedroom farce' with a small cast of six who were kept busy with costume changes.

   We met them afterwards in the dressing room where we saw make-up coming off and older actors emerging from younger painted faces, and one the other way around.

   The absolute 'vamp' of a leading lady, a sultry blonde with stacks of dramatic makeup beneath a towering beehive hairdo, turned into a comfortable middle-aged woman in jeans and baggy jumper with her hair hanging loose in natural waves.  (My fourteen year old male hormones found her far more attractive as herself.)

   During the performance she'd been a total coquette, sliding from one male lap to another at the whim of the script, snogging like a Hoover with them all.  (Over the top face-eating, not mere kissing.) Looking back there may have even been a hint of lesbian byplay with one of the other women, but I didn't pick that up at the time.

   One of the lads asked "When you were snogging with Sandra was it all acting, or were you enjoying it?  How did you know when to stop snogging and start acting again?"

   His answer tells us a lot about how we should handle our characters.

   "It's not an unpleasant duty, but the act always comes first.  You have to remember that when you're on stage you are always acting, even if you seem totally uninterested in what's happening around you.

   "You are not just marking time until your next cue. We were acting the part of an oblivious couple, but listening carefully for the line of dialogue which warned us her husband was about to walk in.  The switch from passion to over the top innocence has to be perfectly timed."

   'Sandra' chimed in.  "That sweet nothing I whispered in his ear was "And...  Break!

   "The audience have to believe in you.  Even if the stage is crowded and the spotlight literally is on a different part of the action you have to maintain your part of the illusion.  I spend a lot of time actively fondling men's backs.  I let my hands do the acting.  It's a small action, but it keeps it live."

   We learned how the parts went together, and how most of the time the message was delivered to the audience by reaction rather than action.  This is particularly important in fight scenes, or even a simple slap around the face.

   If the victim jerks their head to one side, and steps back the audience will fill in the gap and believe they've actually seen the blow.   The best slaps in real life come from nowhere,  If the blow was too obviously telegraphed it blunts the effect.  The same thing happens in writing.

   As writers we often slip in little hints of foreshadowing, but they shouldn't stand out.  Ideally the reader only recognises them in retrospect, once the hinted at action takes place.

   In writing you need to be aware of what your character is doing or saying all the time, and how this can drive forward or kill the flow of the story.

   Filter it through their feelings and senses, not yours.  This is particularly important if they're doing something you personally find repugnant.  If you can't do this your story will either grind to a halt, or you'll end up censoring it for your own comfort and the writing will feel stilted to the reader.  (Confession here.  I can write a very convincing killer, but not a paedophile.)


   The actors played out a few short scenes for us, in their everyday make-up free selves.  Asked us to watch and see what didn't work, what struck a wrong chord.  We had a man entering a strange house at night and just casually finding a seat to sit down.

   I'm pleased to say that we all noticed he hadn't turned on the light.  And didn't trip over anything, or walk cautiously until he found the seat.   So they played it again, with the light being turned on.

   We were all over that one ;-)  "How did he find the switch in the dark if he'd never been there before?"

   The third time the man had a little grope along the wall just inside the door, and threw in some satisfied body language as he found and clicked the switch.

   In our writing he can fumble or feel for the switch and thus avoid tripping over an obstacle, such as a dead body, which would have otherwise floored him.  Your characters only trip if you want them to.

   Life goes on around your characters, even when you - and hopefully your readers - are focused on them.  They are in the spotlight, but you can pick and chose which peripherals add to the performance, and perhaps tell the reader a little bit more about them.

   As an example, here's my John and Frances bugging a drug dealer's house.   During the writing I was living the event with them, constantly checking. The odd little spurious thoughts that flickered through her mind whilst she was working came naturally from her character, not from me.   I figured that as she was doing a familiar job she would have spare mental capacity for a few random thoughts.


   Frances counted off the gates along the alleyway.

   "This is the one."  They'd arrived fairly late, to bug the car and found Griffin was out.  They looked at each other and without needing to speak walked up the service road behind the houses.  Frances gently tested the gate.  The handle turned and the gate flexed under pressure, but it wouldn't open.

   "There's a bolt at the top, see if you can reach it. "

   John stretched a gloved hand over, felt around.  It seemed like a normal bolt.   He worked it loose and Frances tried again.

   One more quick look and they were into the back garden.   It was dark, but there was just enough light seeping over from the streetlights out front to make things visible.  They moved to the back door, where a small open porch offered some privacy from any neighbours who might look out through a back window.

   Frances gently lifted the door mat with both hands, taking care that it didn't bend or dip in the middle, and then put it back.

   "Looking for a key?"  An amused whisper alongside her.

   "No.  Though you'd be surprised how often there is one.  Checking for a pressure mat."

   Frances reached into her 'tool belt', gripped a small rubber covered torch between her teeth, and in the narrow weak beam examined the lock.  It always amused her when someone with paranoid levels of security at the front of the house had a bog-standard 'sturdy' mortice lock on the back door. Didn't they know nearly 90% of burglaries are through the back of the house?

   She ran the beam around the frame and saw no traces of any extra alarms or sensors.

   "Won't take long."  She extracted a pick and a short torsion bar from her belt and within a minute the lock was open.  Her old skills hadn't deserted her, and a few hours spent  opening their own doors at The Sanctuary had re-awakened the 'muscle memory' which let her feel out the pins inside the lock.

   Watching her work John was glad that his few secrets were tucked away in his head.

   She pushed the door open gently and stepped inside.

   "Wait here."

   It went against all his instincts, but he stood there, slumped back into the deeper shadows, ears alert for any problems.  Two people in a strange house had twice as much chance of knocking something over, tripping any inside alarms, or leaving traces of their visit. 

   This, although he hated to admit it, was one place where Frances really didn't need him.


   Moving quickly but carefully Frances passed from room to room.  She used her tools to tuck bugs away in various carefully chosen places.  One inside his land line phone.  It would take a BT engineer to realise it wasn't part of the phone.

   Two in the bedroom, which stunk of an aftershave she absolutely hated.   Couldn't recall the name, but it made her heave.  How could anyone go with a man smelling like that?  John usually just smelt clean, and sometimes of soap if he hadn't rinsed properly.  Told her it was a habit from his poaching days.  Non-smoking gamekeepers can smell aftershave.  And tobacco.  No point in making their job any easier.

   Two in the living room.  One by the sofa, one inside the roving handset she found there.  The one by the sofa would probably be blanked out by television noises, or the rather expensive sound system.  She had to admit the bastard lived well, if rather simply.

   She wasn't kitted out to extract any secrets from his computer.  They probably wouldn't need to.  If Griffin had any sense there'd be nothing on there anyway.   

   One just inside the front door.  Her instructor had told them that people with secrets will often give final instructions/warnings to a visitor just as they are leaving.  Human nature, the eavesdropper's best friend.  He was right.  She and John often gave final reminders as the other one left the house.

   One last bug in the bathroom.  Once again she could hear her instructor's voice.  Too many people watched too many spy films and thought the bathroom was a secure place to make phone calls.  A running shower masked the sounds and made it difficult, but not completely pointless.

   Now for the transmitter.  The bugs had a good working life, even from the little button batteries, but they couldn't transmit far.  So the receiver/transmitter which collected all the feeds had to be carefully located.

   She padded into the kitchen and looked around.  It overlooked the back garden, which was ideal.  A cursory glance through the fairly bare cupboards offered little help.  A stash of stuff which looked as if it had been undisturbed for months would have been ideal, but Griffin either didn't buy much, or was due to shop again soon.  Either way there was no easy concealment.

   A faint clicking from the window caught her attention and she smiled.  An extractor fan, moving idly in the breeze.

   Kneeling up on the draining board she checked and carefully undid the retaining screw and placed the cover in the sink.  Magic, plenty of room.  She peeled a short length of double sided sticky tape from a small roll and used it to secure the transmitter inside the fan's housing. 

   The cover went back on with no problem.

   Her mental clock told her she'd been inside about fifteen minutes, which was quite long enough if Griffin had only gone out for a takeaway or to buy cigarettes.  She shone her torch over the draining board and the sink, saw a few traces of dust from the fan and looked around.  A sheet of dampened kitchen roll cleaned up the slight mess, and she used a second sheet to dry up any residual traces before thrusting both sheets deep into her jacket pocket.

   Time to go.  She ran her fingers along the tool belt, a final safety check to ensure everything was there.  A screwdriver or lock pick left in a target's house wasn't a smart move.

   All present and correct.

   She ghosted through to the back door so quietly she startled John, but the relief in his eyes cancelled her amusement.  Relocking the door she tucked the pick away. 

   The tension she'd been unaware of drained from her body as they moved quietly down the path and out into the service road.  John reached up and over, sliding the bolt into place.


   But you can't do this kind of writing without becoming the person for as long as it takes.

   Shaking them off afterwards may sometimes take longer than you'd expect.  Actors expect this.  Writers however sometimes worry their characters are 'taking over'.  They may well become part of your family, but I've never felt the desire to dress like Frances.