People who have met me may not be surprised that I have an acting background. It’s nothing to get excited about – university Drama and five years of Fringe shows do not make me Helen Mirren – but it has paid off writing-wise in strange ways.
Like writing, acting has taught me that humour is hugely subjective. Some people will find you hilarious even when you’re having an off day and feeling about as funny as a Cathy cartoon. Conversely, you can be putting Bill Bailey to shame and some people will still think you suck. The fickleness of an audience is not, therefore, unique to writing. I have addressed this before, so we shall move on.
In my mind, the primary thing that glues acting and writing together is dialogue. Although a great actor can deliver a clunky line convincingly, it helps tremendously if it sounds like something someone would actually say in real life. Try saying this out loud:
“Shane, I knew you were not one to be trusted, especially after you managed to overthrow the prison guards that dark and starry evening despite your shrivelled hand which was the unfortunate by-product of your ne’er-do-well experiments in Mr Casey’s secret underground laboratory.”
Even Russell Crowe would have issues with that one. A phone would be thrown. (As a side movie-related note, Inception is a very good theory lesson for writers; it’s an interesting film but has some of the most unwieldy dialogue you’ve ever heard. Even Leonardo diCaprio looks like he’s having a few ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moments. But I digress.)
You may have heard that reading your whole piece out loud is a great way to get a feel for it. This is true, and it’s especially true for dialogue. Even if you can’t bring yourself to go through all 142,459 words of your sci-fi masterpiece out loud – who has the time and the vocal chords? – just do it for the parts that are meant to be spoken. You will very quickly pick the difference between, “I just cannot believe that Steve would have committed such an audacious act,” and “I can’t believe Steve’s audacity.”
Are you ready to take it a little bit further? Act out your scene. Yes, you will feel like a tool the first time you do it, and it’s better to be at home alone rather than with company or in a cafe, but it will help you more than you’d think. Can your character have actually walked from here to there while saying this line? Can someone feasibly carry all the things you’ve described without staggering? Is it possible to actually have an intimate conversation with someone while cantering across the moors? OK, the last one may be difficult to verify unless you have a couple of horses - lucky you – but just the simple act of moving around will do two things:
1) it will determine if the action is ringing true, and
2) it can also give you a better idea of what kind of gestures or movements your characters would be doing in this situation.
There have been several moments where I’ve dithered over what to describe during a scene; acting it out immediately tells you, in the most natural way, how the character is or could be physically reacting. Actual movement will give you choices you may not have thought of initially and you choose from there.
An excellent example of how an author failed to do this is from my book club. We were discussing our tome du jour when one book clubber revealed that a pivotal love scene had confused her so much that she physically walked through the steps described, out of sheer curiosity. In addition to providing her husband with some entertainment, it also proved to her that the hero could not have seduced the heroine as the author depicted, for one simple reason: he did not have three arms. In addition, she revealed that at this point she would have abandoned this book for good – I threw mine across the room when I’d finished it; a first – had she not had to finish it for the book club.
As a writer, this is anathema. Don’t hand your reader material which makes them pause, frown, go back, re-read, frown some more, re-re-read, mutter, “That’s not actually possible,” then start Googling references to back themselves up. Don’t give them material to turn Book Club Night into Mime Night.
In short: never give your reader an excuse to stop reading. They may not pick your book up again – though they may act out scenes from it in a pub, to the bemusement of staff and patrons.
Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com
Writing Novels in Australia