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Improve Your Writing Through Acting

By Patrick Kirkland · November 5, 2011

For God's sake, take an improv class. An acting class. Go perform a play– indoor, outdoor, for free, for pay, with a company, with friends, with your stuffed animals– it doesn't matter. Go do anything that requires you to stand up and read a script outloud.

Knowing what actors go through is essential to writing. When an actor prepares, he delves deep into the soul of the character- chances are, he dives deeper than even the writer. Because what he or she is trying to do is make your words, your written actions, and turn them into a living, breathing person with a past, present, and a future. Knowing an actor's preparation is the key to writing a great, well-thought, fully formed character.

But the truth is that I have taken three screenwriting classes in my entire life, and no writing lesson held a candle to where I really learned the craft- those six years of acting classes and intensive study. Because writing for the stage or the screen is unlike any other medium out there. You're writing for a real person, and that person is going to make your words become alive.

I've lost count of the monologues performed, and the scenes workshopped. It's not just memorizing lines, it's hours or days questioning a character choice, asking "what's my motivation?" It's writing full bios for characters you play. It's dissecting beats and lines. The pushes and pulls of a truly well written scene. The goals in mind for a script, a sequence, a scene, and a beat. And truly, the moment when you forget a line on stage or have your joke bomb live and have to speak an unwritten line that you think the character might say, you quickly and immediately learn how to write.

The amount of times I see writers hoard their scripts to the themselves- it's counterproductive. We all get nervous reading our scripts out loud. We're nervous about the words actually being spoken– what will people say? What will they think? But the point of a script- and why you're not writing a novel, or a short story- is that scripts are meant to be spoken. Acted.  They're meant to be heard, to be seen. They're meant to be performed and directed and filmed and produced. They're meant to be visual and emotional. And when the only experience you've had with a script is sitting down at a desk writing it, then you just haven't experienced a script.

If you want a good script to really sing, then you've got to know what it's like when it's out of your hands. You've got to visualize the table read. You've got to see the actors playing your characters– know the process they go through. You have to know the questions a good actor will ask about a character during preparations and scene work. Think how a director might see your script play live. Picture what a cinematographer might film. How the scene might be framed, how the images might pop with saturation or fade. At least, know the basics so you can write like you know way more than you do.

The truth is, you may not even be allowed to see your script get made. It's no secret, lots of directors don't want the writers on set. So when the script is gone, it's gone. And you need to know that you did your best by putting it on the page.

So go. Now. Put down your pens and close your laptops. Go to your nearest art school and sign up for a photography class. Or go to Upright Citizens, or even just your local college, and find an improv class. Or find an acting teacher, or even just people who like to read out loud. Go. Go now. Your writing will be all the better for it later.