Using Theater Tricks to Build a Scene

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We’ve gotten lots of great advice from popular writers over the years, but what if some of the best writing advice came from beyond the Wonderful World of Novels? Although theater and printed fiction tell stories differently, they both communicate a typically fictional narrative to an audience. If you can step into someone else’s shoes for a few minutes, you can gain great insights into your own work as a prose writer.

Be a Script Writer

Writing a script is very different from writing a novel, because you’re aware that ultimately things will change in the hands of the director and actors. Every production will tell a slightly different story, because no two set designers or lead actors will handle your story the same way.

If you’re struggling to write a scene, pretend it’s a script. Get down the bones first. Who is there, who is speaking, what are they doing? You may have some description, and general blocking instructions, but that’s it. Then sit down and figure out how dramatically this scene could change based on how it’s presented. Imagine you’re putting on a production of Macbeth. You block out the scene where Macbeth meets the witches two different ways, using the same script. In the first, the witches pursue a reluctant Macbeth around the stage. In the other, he follows them around, making them clearly uncomfortable. It changes the implications of the dialogue quite a lot. Embrace the possibilities! Ultimately, imagining these different visions of the same ‘scripted’ scene will help you figure out what works best, if you’ve missed a great twist, and how to communicate the scene effectively.

Be a Director

What is your scene trying to accomplish, how does it fit into the story as a whole, and how do you express that? Think in theater terms. Choose visual and audio elements to incorporate, and make sure they belong. A director has to worry over everything from costumes to props to lighting. If you were putting this scene on stage, how would you express it beyond the printed words of a script? Once you have those images, the inflection and intonations of specific performers’ speeches, you can bring your writing genius to bear translating everything you see in your mind’s eye into prose.

Be an Actor

An actor must become their character. They crawl inside another person’s head, transforming themselves, mentally, emotionally, and physically into another individual. You don’t need to look and move like the character you write, but you have to do more than just report on their adventures. To write well, you need to slip inside their skin. Take some time to write important scenes from multiple characters’ points of view. They will feel very differently about it, mull over different points, and hold very different internal monologues. This ensures every character in your scene stays true to their motivation and personality while simultaneously helping you generate deeply emotive and engaging writing.

Theater and prose have a long, symbiotic relationship. Just think of all the great plays you’ve seen that are based on books. Benefits flow both ways. Theater professionals are expert storytellers, after all.

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