Why novel-writing is like acting

When I look back on the various things I’ve been paid to do over the years, one of the most incongruous – for me, anyway – has to be acting.

Some art deco street theatre - a 'movie' being shot on location. Fun stuff. I took this with an 18mm lens (see the distortions along the top of the memorial arch in the background) which meant I was bang in the middle of the action.

Some art deco street theatre I happened to spot unfolding around me one day in Napier, New Zealand. Fun stuff. Now where’s the Interositer gone?

It happened during my student days and I did mostly voice-work and presenting. That stood me in good stead for the radio work I’ve done to promote my books. However, I also got involved in the Victoria University Drama Club. That meant I had to actually act, dance and sing. Conveniently, I’d been formally trained in music over more years than absolutely everything else, including writing. Inconveniently, of all the things I might have a talent for, singing and dancing are not among them.

The curious thing about the Victoria University Drama Club at the turn of the 1980s was the number of people in it, besides me, who went on to become multi-published authors. Stella Duffy, for instance, who returned to the UK and has since become a well known novelist. She even has her own Wikipedia page, which is more than I’ve managed.

Thing is, understanding how people express character, which actors need in order to conjure up a convincing performance for an audience, is not too different from what authors do for their readers. You are not trying to present the whole person in the space of a play, film or novel. Yet it has to be the right aspects to be compelling. The trick is picking the aspects.

Look at Sherlock Holmes; Conan Doyle made sure his readers knew about the deerstalker hat, the violin playing, the carpet slipper with the tobacco in it and so on. All of which created a context for Holmes’ actions.

The way these are presented differs between media. Actors use body language, expression, language and appearance to convey character. Authors have words alone. Hunt out those old BBC Holmes adaptations – the Jeremy Brett ones – and compare what he does with the way Conan Doyle described the same scenes, to see what I mean.

That doesn’t reduce the fact that both acting and writing have the same general limits – presenting a compelling character from fragments. And the knowledge of what those fragments are is, I think, shared.

So too is the end point – which is to convey an emotion to the audience or reader, one that allows them to understand what the character is feeling and, perhaps, to share that sense of drama themselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: What to do when NaNoWriMo is finished; the real truths about writing; and more. Watch this space.

2 comments on “Why novel-writing is like acting

  1. Megan says:

    Great post!

    I wonder if actors benefit from writing courses, especially when they learn about characterization, much like those in your drama club benefited from the acting lessons.

    • I think they would. The two skills are so inter-twined. Thinking about it, there are a few actors who turn out to be pretty good writers – David Niven’s ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ springs to mind;or Stephen Fry.

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