Acting Exercises to Help You Write Powerful Scenes
By Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
December 1, 2009
"One of the exercises that we do that’s helpful to a writer is that we take the same three actions (with props) under three different circumstances."|
On Wednesday evening, sometime between from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. EST, if you were a fly on the wall, you might see me trudging across a toy-filled room that is used as a nursery school during the day, clutching my throat with one hand, mopping my sweaty brow with the other.
“I won’t be able to make it,” I rasp, staggering forth. “Water, water,” I say, my voice now a whisper. I get closer. I kneel down on the dusty linoleum; try to scoop the water up in my hands. “Sand,” I cry. “Just sand,” and I buckle over and expire.
My acting class bursts into applause.
We’re all overly generous with each other.
So, my acting is overblown, but what I carry away from it when I sit down to write is invaluable.
One of the exercises that we do that’s helpful to a writer is that we take the same three actions (with props) under three different circumstances.
"If you do this exercise with a fictional character, putting him through three different scenarios while doing the exact same actions, you’ll get to know him . . . "|
If you do this exercise with a fictional character, putting him through three different scenarios while doing the exact same actions, you’ll get to know him, his gestures, his voice, and how he reacts emotionally and physically.
Another exercise that can help you develop a character, a scene, is to have the character endow an object with some quality. For example, if you see the actor onstage drinking alcohol, it’s never really alcohol, it’s tea or water or juice. But the character endows his non-alcoholic drink with the properties of alcohol. You might see him getting tipsy, weaving around, words slurring. More than that, if the character is drinking wine that costs a $1,000 dollars a bottle, try to show how he would hold the glass and sip it vs. how he would hold his glass and drink if it were a cheap Chianti.
Any object can be endowed with qualities that reveal character and situation. A ring on one character’s finger can bring up romance. The character might splay her fingers, admiring the ring, smiling. The ring represents her amour. But the ring on another character might bring up loss—widowhood, for example, and the character might look at her ring and weep. Someone thinking of getting a divorce might twist her ring on her finger, maybe even take it off and put it in her pocket, then splay her fingers to see what they will look like ring-less.
Objects are treated differently depending on what they represent. An object might have magical properties.
Think of Dorothy’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz which she activates by clicking her heels together while saying, “There’s no place like home.”
Adlibbing, one person being given a line, and then the other person picking up the tone as well as the words and doing or saying something back that’s in keeping, is a great tool of the actor and the writer. Writing a scene is exactly like adlibbing. The best dialogue usually just happens as if it’s channeled to you. Each character has to respond to the other, even if it’s deciding to ignore him or remain silent, or walking out of the room. If you have a fictional character in mind, get him together with another. Allow one character to say something to the other and the other respond, even if you don’t use it in your final story. It’s a great chance to get to know the character.
Actors also have to think of the purpose of their character. For example, does one character want to seek revenge against the other as Medea does with her disloyal husband, Jason or Hamlet with his mother and uncle? Does the character want to humiliate another as Stanley Kowalski humiliated Blanche in A Street Car Named Desire? Does the character seek obedience from his family like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof? The next time you read a scene, try to divine the purpose of the characters. When you’re writing your own scene, ask yourself, what is the purpose of the scene and the character? You’ll end up with tighter and more convincing characters and action.
Lights up. Now begin!
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.