I just finished taking an introduction to acting class at The Theatre Lab on Eighth Street near Gallery Place. The instructor’s lessons in how an actor approaches a script also serve as good advice for someone writing fiction–perhaps more applicable to plays, but definitely applicable to novels and short stories as well. Here is his advice for acting:
1. examine the “given circumstances;” that is, the conditions that exist and events that occur before the play begins, and the conditions and events that will presumably occur after the play’s end (as well, of course, as examining the events occurring in the story (ie., on stage);
2. determine the various characters’ super-objectives (what is the large thing they want all through the play?);
3. determine each character’s immediate objective in each scene. (The principle is that in any given scene, each person wants something from the other, something that he or she wants the other to do. The something must be tangible, although it may be very small, and may represent something intangible. In a play, it must be something the audience can see. And, of course, one does not necessarily get what they are after–that’s what presents the conflict necessary to drama );
4. determine each character’s tactics or strategy (the small actions we take to try to obtain the objective; eg., flattery, bullying, bargaining, etc.); and
5. for each line, ask not how one says the line, but why one is saying it. (The how will ultimately arrive from an examination of that question.)
Although these precepts are meant for an actor’s interpretation of a script, I think they can also, with small adjustments, serve the novel and story writer well, most especially in revision. Items #1 and #2 are a given. But novice writers can get lost in a scene, lose the sense of what a character most immediately wants from the other character, and how that relates to the character’s super-objective and fits into the whole of the story. Keeping items #3, #4, and #5 in mind can help the writer sharpen such scenes.