Clarissa Johal: Why Writers are Like Actors

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why Writers are Like Actors

I stayed up late the other night to watch American Horror Story. I shouldn't have, really. I've been setting aside late nights as writing time. My kiddos are still on holiday and, while they're fine at entertaining themselves, I can't write with other people around. But sometimes my brain wants to zone and writing late at night isn't an option.

I love American Horror Story. The good and the bad of it (mental institution good, There are few programs I can say that about. Doctor Who, BBC's Being Human (sorry folks, the American version sucks), True Blood and Grimm. That's about it, really. A cooking reality show here and there. With a gazillion channels on television, I have to wonder why there's such a small gene pool to pick from.

For the most part, I can watch American Horror Story and it doesn't bother me a bit. But there are times it makes me squirm and I think, "Now there's some good writing." Add to that, superb acting, and it becomes a feast for the senses. In my geeky and writerly brain, I often find myself trying to imagine how to translate that feast to a page.

Have you ever done that? Watched something and imagined what the script must have looked like and how it would read in a book?

*Scary Movie Script*
Act 5, Scene 1

Victim: "What do you plan to do with me?"
Scary Guy: (waves knife around) "I don't know. I'm sure we can come up with something. Given time."

Something like that handed to an actor requires them to squeeze emotion and tension from the lines and translate them to the audience. I know this from experience, I graduated from a high school of performing arts (eons ago) and majored in acting and dance. Gleaning emotions from the script as an actor is much the same as gleaning emotions from the reader as a writer.

Try reading this instead:

"Scary Book"
Page 200

"What do you plan to do with me?" She felt the annoying tickle of perspiration run down the side of her brow. Her heart was beating so hard, it made it difficult to breathe.
"I don't know," he replied. The knife caught the dim, yellow light overhead as he waved it back and forth hypnotically. "I'm sure we can come up with something."  The dead look in his eyes sucked the last bit of hope from the room. "Given time."

More words are required to squeeze emotion from the reader. And even then, the writer is hoping the reader can see the wan light overhead, the peeling paint on the walls (which I saw in my head right now and would have disclosed in a previous paragraph) and the juxtaposing tension on the characters faces. It's similar to acting--but working the internal/cerebral vs. external/visual.

Which is probably why I can't write with people around. The acting required (in my head) is so internal, any external is a distraction. I do often externalize a scene to see how it sounds--but I wouldn't want to scare people and make them think I talk to myself. Yeah.

So, I'll leave you with a video of one of my favorite moments from American Horror Story.
It captured the unexpected, surreal and 1960's quality of the series--all in one scene. Absolutely brilliant.

Set up: Sister Jude's (played by Jessica Lange) shock-therapy induced hallucination.

"The Name Game" from American Horror Story


Lydia Sharp said...

I can't write with people around, either. Not close to me, anyway. Just yesterday I had to keep telling my husband to get out of my bubble!

Peter Lukes said...

I agree with Lydia. To make matters worse, my wife seems to get the MOST talkative when I'm trying to write at home...
Regarding AHS- I think the first season was SOOO much better than this one. I actually stopped watching a couple of weeks ago because it just didn't hold my attention like last year.

Holley Trent said...

"More words are required..."


Script writers can live a bit open to interpretation. Writers don't have that luxury. We have to telegraph every-damn-thing that's meant to be seen or felt or risk something being lost to interpretation. If we don't plant it, the reader won't be able to consume it.

And I'm *totally* one of those writers who acts out bits and pieces of scenes to figure out what the visceral reactions should be.

I guess it's kinda like "method writing."

Rita Monette, Writer said...

Nice scene writing, Clarissa. I'm with you, can't write with someone in the room.

Like your line, Lydia. I'll have to try that.

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Lydia--I don;t feel so rude now, I find myself skulking into the other room. Not to be unsociable or anything... Peter, yes, I completely understand. My husband does this--not on purpose, but yes. Then I feel rude for telling him "I'm writing." Holley, method writing, lol. That's perfect.

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Thanks, Rita!! Glad I'm not the only one :)

Anonymous said...

I write in a bubble Clarissa, oblivious to anyone who happens to be in the house.
Fortunately my other half is use to me not answering - or answering the question before last - having conversations with my characters and making strange chuckling noises. And that's before I've switched on the lap top!
Great blog.

Clarissa Johal, Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clarissa Johal, Author said...

I wish I could be oblivious! I like to keep all my craziness to myself, lol. You're too funny, Susan.

Dianna said...

Hi Clarissa,

I loved this post. I love the concept of squeezing emotion from the reader--I've never thought of it that way before, but that is really what we do.

Also, I love American Horror Story, but I have to agree with the person above who said they enjoyed the first season way more. I'm pretty iffy on the aliens and I'm not confident that they're going to wrap this season up nearly as well as they did with the last one. The first season made much more sense and I found it much more enjoyable.


Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Thanks! And very true--last season was "classic" horror which was why I think it did better. Well, that and rubber man. I miss him, lol. This season really hearkens back to that '60's weirdness. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next season.

Heather R. Holden said...

Such a great parallel! I agree, writing is quite a bit like acting. So is drawing, since--as an artist--I've not only had moments where I spent time envisioning how certain shows and the like would play out in book form, but how certain books would play out in comic form!

Leigh Daley/Arley Cole/me said...

Awesome post!! I write with headphones on to drown out the ambient noise and do indeed act stuff out as I write. I draw the line at reading aloud, but have been known to act out fight scenes in particular. The one thing I miss when I'm writing romance is the fight scenes.

And I take issue with the dig on Being Human American style!! I LOVE that show!!! Sure, it's not the same series, but it's got its own good thing going on.

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Heather--I can imagine that with being an artist! Arley--see, I knew I'd get in trouble with somebody for saying that! The American version of the show has found it's audience, for sure. :)

Anonymous said...

I prefer to write alone and in relative silence, too, although I've learned to work around the distraction of the TV. There are four adults living in my house and my parents are pretty good at respecting when I need silence.

Also, American Horror Story looks terrifying.

Anonymous said...

Love this example!!! I think this would be a great thing to show people who ignorantly say, "Books are not as interesting as movies," or "Books are boring compared to movies." Don't get me wrong - I love movies! But there's just something about the way words come together on a page... When I read the movie's lines and then what you wrote, I almsot got goosebumps! And not the "I'm scared" kind either. :) Awesome writing!!! It really brings the scene to life!

Unknown said...

Agree with you too. I have to leave my family behind and write alone for the same reason. I can't fall into the scene and act is out if everyone's buzzing around me. So, I write either before everyone gets up, or, more usually, after the kids go to bed (or at least are staying in the bedroom) until I have to asleep.
Agree also with the American Version of Being Human not being as good as tbe BBC one.

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Brianna--now television would be a definite "no" for me! I don't know how you do that! Dusty--not the movie lines, but mine. :) The general "gist" of one of the scenes, though. Thanks!! Nancy-another one for BBCs original! LOL. Thanks for stopping by!

Eleni Konstantine said...

Great post, Clarissa. I don't have a problem working with people around - I've gotten used to it. Though I mainly work in another room but since it's an open plan house, I can hear the comings and goings of everyone. :)

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

You're lucky, Eleni! That would drive me to distraction.