Writers who have never gotten on a stage or before a camera, who have never had to crawl into the skin of a character for the purpose of portraying the body language, facial expressions and dialogue of a fictional character truly do NOT grasp the magnitude of the role of an actor. I feel these writers proceed with a kind of ignorance built solely on the very unstable sand of their imagination.
Many an actor has turned to screenwriting to put on paper the kinds of story events and characters they wanted to portray. They have seen and experienced stories that missed the mark or disappointed. Since cinema (and live theater) are collaborative, many factors can contribute to failures. But the script is the foundation, the blue print all the other Creatives work from. The astute actors (especially the more accomplished ones) look for script material that they WANT on their resumes. Not every project is going to be perfection. Not every project is going to shimmer with energy that results in a lasting impact on the movie-going public. Sometimes the well-intentioned actor-turned-writer who craves that kind of project holds the story too close and doesn’t gain the objectivity needed . . . BUT any really good actor (sans over-bearing ego) will simply know when the portrayal of a character creates a vicarious magic for the audience.
Getting into the Actor’s Head
I had some marvelous dramatic coaching in high school in both our theater productions and our competition pieces. Our drama teacher pushed hard and absolutely refused to settle for a young student merely reciting words. We had to diligently work to BECOME the character, even the character reciting a poem. Awkward, stilted presentation simply was not acceptable. The rich lesson was that teacher made us WANT to perform comfortably and our enjoyment of the performance radiated to the audience. It was addictive.
That comfortable naturalness is the reason screen writers HAVE to read their scripts aloud. Even better is if they can record the reading and listen. I guarantee you will cringe yet know EXACTLY where you have to revise and shorten dialogue. Writing succinct and tight is the first step then hearing the speeches is the second. The third step is imagining an actor who can comfortably be the chameleon persona who LIVES the dialogue. That actor feels the character’s emotion, quivers with the character’s motivation and SOUNDS like the character. The actor as a person ceases to exist in those moments and the character LIVES. Think about the sound and body language of the iconic man’s man John Wayne. In every one of his long list of movies he was John Wayne. He translated the unique characters into HIS personality. Then along came the movie TRUE GRIT where the Duke let Marshal Rooster Cogburn live. He received his one and only Oscar for that performance . . . because he sublimated himself and created the character. THAT is good acting. I am 100% certain you can recall similar actor-to-character performances that resonated with you.
Taking an Acting Class
Above all else, I am a writer. That may be an inherently solitary profession, but in the 21st century, especially in screenwriting, it cannot be. If you are a shy, skittish person made nervous by the critical evaluations and non-nonsense conversation of others, you may balk at my suggestion. If so, you will suffer for it. You will remain ignorant of the most valuable component of the cinematic experience, acting. You simply will not understand what you must provide an actor . . . until you become one.
I’m not suggesting you throw yourself into your local community theater circuit. However, you do need to take acting classes to learn HOW actors personally evolve a feel for dialogue and characterization. It is an artificial giving over of self to BELIEVE in the persona of a character. You turn off self and grasp the thoughts and feelings of another person. Certainly some writers can do this as they write. I do. (And I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with that vicarious living of hopping from one character to another, but we won’t go there.)
Letting go of your own present life to crawl into the skin and mind of another is NOT a simple or careless action. Neither is it a one time thing if you want to truly understand the art and craft of acting. You recondition your mind, spirit and body as you become the character.
Bottom line: Once you have participated in the group activity of acting, you will gain a soul-deep insight that will give vibrancy and immediacy to the dialogue you write and the characters you choreograph, be it in a script or in a novel.
Sally Walker’s published credits include literary, romance and western novels, a nonfiction essay collection, several creative writing textbooks, stage plays, poetry, and many magazine articles on the craft of writing, including staff contributions to two international film magazines for 10 years. With 30 screenplays written, one optioned in 2014, several under negotiation at three different studios and two novel-to-screenplay adaptations on her plate, Sally has a well-respected manager representing her in Hollywood. In addition to long time active memberships in such national writing organizations as RWA, WWA and SCBWI, she was president of a state-wide writers organization 2007-2011. She keeps to a strenuous writing schedule and still has time to work as Editorial Director for The Fiction Works, supervising acquisitions and sub-contracted editors, as well as Script Supervisor for material sent to TFW’s affiliated Misty Mountain Productions. Sally has taught writing seminars, both on-site and on-line, for almost 29 years and is the facilitator for the weekly meetings of the Nebraska Writers Workshop in Ralston, NE. For more information on her works and classes go to her website at http://www.sallyjwalker.com