Watch the stages to help with your pages!
How can theater, acting, and the stage help your writing? Acting and writing are so incredibly similar. Two different ways of storytelling. Obviously, I’m not the first person to connect or compare the two but I enjoyed looking at one to help reinforce the other. It’s another way to help wrap our brains around making stories and hopefully, increase our abilities, right?
In the podcast Writing Excuses, season 3 episode 14, Mary Robinette Kowal talks about puppetry and what the five principles of puppetry and how they apply to writing.
Go here to listen to the actual podcast…
Here is my lengthy summary and sometimes my own words/thoughts added in…
Mary Robinette Kowal - The 4 Principles of Puppetry
1. Focus –
Focus indicates thought. What you show the audience is what they have to think about. You can only show them one thing at a time. So, what you are having your audience focus on (or what your puppet/character focuses on) needs to be the most important thing happening at that moment.
2. Breath or rhythm –
indicates emotion. In puppetry, how you breathe indicates what is going on. A sigh can indicate love or frustration. Panting can indicate physical exhaustion or excitement. When you write, the rhythm you use can help create the pacing AND the tone of the story. For example, if you use short, choppy sentences, you are going to create a faster pacing and rhythm.
3. Muscle –
Muscle creates the illusion that a puppet (or character) is moving on their own. If the audience can see the puppeteer (aka author), then their suspension of disbelief is ruined. So you need your characters to have solid motivation. Actions and reactions need to happen because that is what the character would naturally do, not because it’s what the plot requires. Also, you need to consider what the physical consequences are to your setting. Make sure it makes sense to have things located in their proper places. Mary gives the example of having a tannery in the middle of a village. It wouldn’t happen because the uric acid being dumped into the streams would drive the neighbors in the village crazy. An author shouldn’t plan something like that (having a tanner in the middle of a village) just for convenience.
4. Meaningful movement –
your body language and movement needs to have a purpose. In puppetry, bobbing a head every time it speaks conveys no information. If a character picks up a water glass, there has to be a reason to go for the water glass at that moment – either emotional content, plot content, or some other meaning. Mary gives the following example:
“I don’t like what you’re saying to me.” She looked away from him. “I don’t understand it at all.”
This is not meaningful movement. What is she looking at?
“I don’t like what you’re saying to me.” She fiddled with the knife on the table. “I don’t understand it.”
Here, that fiddling with the knife on the table immediately starts to tell you what she’s thinking about. If she’s going from her thoughts to ‘I need to play with this knife. . . ‘ Much more meaningful movement.
5. Practice -
I’m not sure if they didn’t get to the fifth principle or what but the last thing mentioned was a writing prompt. So, I’m going to say that the fifth principle is to PRACTICE which obviously translates into writing.
All of her thoughts on puppetry led me to think about the stage and theater and how those things can relate to writing. For example…
Blocking is a term used both on the stage and on the page.
a. In theater, the definition is the movement and/or positions the director determines for proper dramatic effect.
b. In a book, it is placement of characters in the scene.
When you are blocking a scene on stage, there are a few important basic elements to try to remember…
1. You should be able to see all of the characters on the stage during a scene. Not necessarily all at the same time, but all of the characters on the stage need to be important to the scene otherwise, what’s the point of even being there. So, they should be viewed by the audience at some point. Similarly, when writing a scene in a book, every character needs to have a purpose. For example, say J.K. Rowling was to write a scene in potions class. Obviously, any student in the scene would have a purpose because they are actually taking the class but if she then threw in say, Hagrid, he would need to have a reason to be there. He shouldn’t be there just because Jo (can I call you Jo?) likes the character of Hagrid. Also, it would be odd if the scene focuses on Harry alone and the other students are never even mentioned when he and they are all supposed to be in class. Not that this scene could never happen, but hopefully, you see my point.
2. The blocking should help feature the correct actors at the appropriate moments.
There are so many ways to feature actors on stage. It can be done with lighting, or by everyone else on stage looking at the featured actor, or by movement, or even by just locating the actor center stage. BUT, if the director doesn’t choose the correct blocking, the whole mood and meaning of the scene can be ruined. Likewise when writing, the appropriate characters should be featured at the appropriate times. This one seems like a no-brainer, but I have read things in the past and wondered because the scene to me would come across much stronger if it was from a different point of view or if the author had focused on a different character.
3. Blocking should create a stage picture.
At any point during the show, you should be able to take a picture of the actors on the stage and be able to tell what the actors are doing without explanation. (Just a side note – I love this because I happen to adore doing stage photography. It’s one of my hobbies besides writing.) Directors work to make sure actors are at different heights, different poses, and in different locations to help create interest, mood, and emotion. There are many ways to liken this in your writing. One obvious way is to vary your settings, another is to make sure your characters are unique to each other and not just in the way they look but also in their movement, habits, flaws, and strengths. Take into consideration what angle your audience is viewing the scene and how might they get the best advantage for the action. Creating “stage pictures” in your writing can polish your scenes.
Ok. I think I probably could go on and on and this is only ONE stage term. There’s also casting, directing, exposition, masking, the proscenium arch, run time, etc, etc.
Next time you go to a theater production, take time to recognize the story-telling aspects that you can use to improve your own writing. I’m sure you’ll come away from the stage with plenty to use on your page.