What Theatre Can Teach About Writing

Please help me welcome J. David Core as my Wednesday’s guest. We both share a love of theatre, so I was pleased to have him tell us some of the ways he has learned more about writing by being active on stage. I am still sick, but I have sprayed the blog with sanitizer, so there are no germs to share. Unfortunately, there are no goodies to share, either. Thank goodness J.D. sent me the article well enough in advance that all I had to do was write this little introduction and publish the post. Enjoy….I’m going back to bed.

I began my love affair with writing at almost the same moment that I began my love affair with theater. In high school my friends were all theater and band geeks, but I had no musical talent, so if I wanted to hang with them I had to audition for plays. Now that I am writing fiction, I always remember the lessons I learned as an actor reading scripts and following stage direction.

Remember my blocking. Dramatists continue to tweak their scripts through early rehearsals for several reasons. One of the most common is blocking problems. When several characters are on stage, it becomes difficult to recall where the main character is in relation to the character he/she is addressing, and whether having the character turn might cause that actor to be upstaged by a tertiary player. The same can happen when wiring a story, particularly in a fight scene of even an erotic interlude.

A character cannot throw a punch if both hands are choking an assailant. A man cannot kiss a woman’s lips if she’s chewing a piece of cherry he just fed her; or, if he does, the half-masticated berry should be noted.

Be aware of the fourth wall.
Sometimes a character will find himself spotlighted while the other characters either freeze in tableau or continue milling about in semi-darkness silently mouthing words. An occasional exception is when a playwright intentionally employs the trope of breaking the fourth wall; the imaginary plane at the footlights – the wall on which the audience is a fly.

Sometimes, however, an accident (or bad scripting) will result in breaking that fourth wall. This can also happen in writing a novel or short story if the author suddenly steps out of narrator-mode and addresses the reader directly. It can be done effectively, or it can ruin a reading experience if done clumsily. Ask how you would feel as a reader or audience member if this happened while you were engrossed in the experience. Would you easily fall back into the world of the story, or would you be too aware of the writer’s conceit to easily go-with-the-flow?

Keep it simple.
In comedy-of-error or farce there’s often a lot of sub-plotting an audience has to keep track of. Oscar Wilde and Gilbert &Sullivan were experts at keeping various discordant mis-communications between characters in play. Alistair Foot & Anthony Marriott and Neil Simon are modern experts at the technique. However, it’s a tricky thing to accomplish.

Intricate story arcs can have this same drawback. A good rule-of-thumb is to write a separate character side for each major player in the story and track his or her POV at each stage in the plot. Odds are if their motivations and actions stop making sense to you, they won’t gel for a reader either.

Finally, Stay true to the character.
During a community theater performance of the musical “Grease” where I played Eugene, the school nerd, there was a scene where the director had us all on stage miming behavior in the background as the focus was on Danny and Sandy, the hero and heroine of the story. Somehow I wound up seated next to the Rizzo character, and the director brilliantly instructed the actress to remove my glasses and tease me with them by trying them on herself, but then clean them with her nylon scarf before returning them to me. None of this was in the script, yet by having the actress taunt the nerd, she remained true to character; but by cleaning the specs before returning them, she remained sympathetic for any audience members who allowed the background to distract their attention from where it ought to have been, on Danny and Sandy.

The fact that our interplay in no way advanced the story was immaterial. We had to remain in character. Had we, for example, suddenly embraced and had an impromptu make-out session, any audience members who noted it would be unable to enjoy the rest of the play. Why was Rizzo necking with the class geek? That would be the only thing they’d be asking and the only story resolution they’d be seeking for the remainder of the play.

What it all comes down to in the end is that a writer is directing a play in his or her head as the story comes to life. Ultimately it will be a play presented in the imaginations of a hopefully massive audience, one performance at a time for a one seat theater with no final curtain call. Each performance will be a little different, but the script has to have the bugs worked out so that the imaginary actors are not tripping on each other or confusing the occupant of that lone seat, and I have my time on stage to thank for helping me hone that skill.

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 With a profound interest in religion, liberal politics and humor, Dave began writing in High School and has not given up on it since. His first professional writing jobs came while attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh when he was hired to create political cartoons for the Pitt News and to write humor pieces for Smile Magazine.

Dave has worked in the newspaper industry as a photographer, in the online publishing industry as a weekly contributor to Streetmail.com, and was a contributing writer to the Buzz On series of informational books and to the Western online anthology, Elbow Creek. His science fiction novel, Synthetic Blood and Mixed Emotions, is available from writewordsinc.com.

Dave currently resides in his childhood home in Toronto, OH with his beautiful girlfriend and his teenage daughter. He enjoys participating in local community events and visiting with his two adult children and his grandson.

5 thoughts on “What Theatre Can Teach About Writing”

  1. I wrote a full-length play as a 16th birthday gift to my daughter (it’s a three-women play). Okay, it took me until she was 19 to finish it.

    But the process of conveying the story is very different – and it’s good for a novelist to learn how to tell a story with other tools.

    I still hope to get Tangled Webs produced some day; possibly turn it into a radio play/audiobook.

    Meanwhile, I posted about what I learned (http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/for-better-dialogue-in-fiction-write-a-play/). It is a wonderful exercise.


  2. J. D., I’m glad that you were able to be my guest and apologize for being an absent hostess. I have been sick off and on since last Friday. I think the push of so many rehearsals, going out of town, and then two weekends of the show were just too much for me. I keep forgetting my body is not as young as my mind. (smile)

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