By Roadmap Top Tier Writer Sebastian Tudores
Did you ever wonder what an actor actually does to bring your characters and scenes to life? Six years ago, on my first encounter with his Story seminar in New York, Robert McKee told me to go find out. “After all,’ he said, “Shakespeare did it!” No pressure, I immediately thought. This was the ‘inciting incident’ that put me on a two-and-a-half-year journey of weekly (sometimes daily) episodes of elation and depression, dangerous levels of laughter and cathartic waterfalls of tears - all part of the rigorous acting craft training at the Bill Esper Studio in NY. The experiences were all truthful. Luckily, the circumstances were all imaginary. wink, wink… elbow shove.
There are differences of varying degree among acting ‘schools.’ And, although my training is in Meisner, the process I’m describing here is mostly common to any modern actor’s pursuit of bringing a scene to life. For each of the steps, I then attempt to bring some writer’s perspective (WP) that I found useful while writing a scene. I hope at least one of these attempts may add some value to your writing craft :)
MEMORIZE SCENE BY ROTE
This first layer of activity can feel like you’re memorizing a phone book. But even then, our brain reflexively looks for patterns, associations, etc.. Still, I make every effort not to ‘go there’ at this point for one important reason: ultimately, we never know what we’re gonna say next. Even when we meticulously plan the infamous ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech, the monologue shatters when faced by a sobbing person or, when your face sobs after making contact with that person’s fist. Meaning, words to an actor should be as accessible as legs to a human: they’ll be there if/when I need them, but I don’t have an active awareness of them until such need occurs.
WP: To the actor, words come last. First, there’s an ‘inhale’ of the surrounding stimulus (which could be other’s words), then a visceral processing of that stimulus through the filter of personal meaning, and, finally, a surrender to the IMPULSE this meaning creates in the actor/character. That impulse might then exhibit as any of a thousand behaviors, only ONE of which might be… speaking. The question for the writer then: what is the character’s reaction to the moment before? Does it have to be words? And, if not words, does it always have to be freaking facial expressions?! Why doesn’t he throw a plate? Why doesn’t she interrupt him to note something in her journal? The choices writers make have to, of course, live within the parameters of the character’s circumstances and characterization, but we can rejoice in knowing that the constraint will still leave us with about 20,000 options.
ESTABLISH OBJECTIVE, RELATIONSHIP, AND RELATIONSHIP POV
WHAT do I want? WHO do I want it from? How do I FEEL about the person I want it from? The answers to these questions should be simple BUT specific. I want to convince my boss to go on the weekend trip. I hate my boss.
WP: It’s assumed that the scene I’m writing serves a practical purpose to the story, that is, to one or more of my character’s journeys. Whether my character achieves her objective or not changes the entire course of the journey. Scene objectives are like pixels - if they are vague, generic, then the entire journey will be vague, generic, and out of focus. Have a simple and specific objective in each scene. Also, we hear a lot about how characters need distinct voices, but we don’t hear enough about how each character adjusts that distinction, as we all do in life, depending on who we speak to. “Atta cute little bebe, yaaaaaa… (turns to villain) You come near him again I’ll rip your f&*#ing head off and piss down your neck!” You get the picture… ;) It is unrealistic that a character would maintain the same tone, and even cadence, throughout the entire film/episode.
PARAPHRASE TO GET THE ‘ACTIVE MEANING’
Words are just another form of behavior, of action. To achieve our objective we have to DO things. With our hands, our legs, our entire body, our words. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE between using your arms to hold someone back or using your vocal apparatus to do it. Goes something like this:
Sam looks her straight in the eye from his wheelchair.
Julie breaks focus, places the last piece of clothing in her bag and steps to the door, turns the knob.
B) Don’t leave me.
C) No vanilla ice cream for you, I guess.
D) I’m wearing your favorite panties.
WP: All of the above dialogue choices carry the same ACTION - stop Julie from opening the door. But some give me the action in text, while others give it to me in sub-text. I’ve heard people say that subtext is a difficult thing to grasp. Not really. It’s just about making a different, more ‘telling,’ more effective choice for the character’s response. When the actor paraphrases, he finds the ‘active meaning,’ meaning… I know what I’m saying, but what am I DOING?! So the writer might want to proceed backward: I know what I want Sam TO DO, but HOW will he DO IT? Will he (refer to above):
A) Command her?
B) Beg her?
C) Tempt her?
D) … tempt her? (Shock her?)
What we notice is that when we specify the action first, it truly frees us up to be more creative than just using words! (refer to above)
A) Sam THROWS the plate (same plate from MEMORIZE step above) past her shoulder. It SMASHES into the door.
B) Sam wrestles himself to the edge of his wheelchair and COLLAPSES at her feet.
C) Sam picks up the Ben & Jerrry’s and begins to LICK it. He MOANS with every lap.
D) … I’m wearing your favorite panties.
Julie STOPS. She drops her bag and turns around to see Sam licking his Ben & Jerry’s.
The paisley ones?
To Be Continued…
There are a few more steps to present, but brevity is the bullion of blogs. Until next time, let’s all remember the wise advice from that Argentinian genius, Jorge Luis Borges - “Don’t speak, unless you can improve the silence.”