Monday, January 16, 2017

Get on your feet

If I told you that there's one simple thing you can do to make your writing really come alive, would you believe me? One thing that will individualize your characters, enliven your dialogue and spice up your staging? Well, there is, and me being a little slow on the uptake, only just discovered it.

It all started a couple of days ago when I was listening to the On The Page podcast podcast. It's one of my favorite writing podcasts, and although it's focused on screenwriting, I've found that a lot of the advice applies to plays.

It's also a lot of fun. Host Pilar Alessandra interviews a wide range of Hollywood creatives, and her conversations with them are always lively, informative and hilarious.

So anyway, I was listening to the 12/16/16 podcast, titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Actors... And Writers. In it, actor Kevin E. West talked about the bad habits he had to overcome to achieve success in his career, and about halfway in, he said something really interesting:

"I don't know how much writers get up and walk around when they're writing dialogue... The dialogue of a character, regardless of what, you know, archetype you've made this person and what ethnicity you've made them or what educational background you've given them is: what are they like on their feet? And that's what's missing a lot in a lot of the dialogue I've read over the years... I can read something and tell you've never put this character on their feet in your mind."

He nailed it. At least for me. Oh, I'll read my scripts out loud a couple of times during the revision process to make sure the words flow naturally. But I don't act it out. And I rarely picture what the characters are doing while they're talking, other than the occasional laugh or sneer or pout.

So I decided to give it a try. I read the script I'm currently working on, and as I read it, I acted out their movements. I made every entrance and exit. I fidgeted nervously as the earnest young production assistant asked his crush for a date. I even writhed in agony as the temperamental movie star succumbed to a fatal dose of cyanide.

It worked wonders, just like Kevin said it would. By getting off my butt and moving around, I felt like I had actually become my characters. Not only did it let me figure out what the characters were doing while they talked, it helped me with the dialogue itself.

If a line I'd written didn't match their personality or their emotional state at the time, it jumped right out at me and I could immediately come up with something more authentic and true. I didn't have to think about it. The words just flowed form my brain.

There's only one drawback to this technique. Okay, two.

First, it's exhausting! You're basically performing an entire play--speaking every line and making every movement--all by yourself. So obviously, you don't want to do this every single time you revise the script. I recommend doing it once or twice, near the end of the polishing stage.

The other drawback? Oh, just some minor domestic strife. I guess when I was performing my little one-man show, I was so loud my wife could barely hear the TV upstairs.

Ah, well. The sacrifices we make for our art. At least I didn't injure myself like this guy.

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