5 acting exercises to improve your writing
We’re all told to “write what you know“, and that’s all fine and dandy. But not all of us crime and mystery writers have lived a dissolute life in society’s underbelly (or at least not recently…ahem), or hunted criminals, or traveled on the Orient Express. Some of us are reclusive hermits who prefer the company of a chosen few and maybe some plants and need a stiff drink (or three) to venture into the outside world…ahem.
But even if you’re an extroverted life of the party, you still have not experienced everything you might want your character to. And the key to writing enduring stories is to create real characters who feel real emotions in real situations–that you’ve imagined.
What to do if you’ve never chased anyone down with a gun? Or jumped out of a plane? Or been in a terrible accident?
It’s important to go deeper than just describe the action. How WOULD you feel if you were in a locked room with muscle-bound assassins? Yes, of course you can just say that your character was scared, but really, put yourself in their shoes. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. What do you feel? What do you smell? Do you need the bathroom? Do you scream at them? Or are you resigned to your fate? Do you crack a joke? Your character is more like you than you think, and the more you can inhabit them, the more the reader will as well.
Next time you’re not sure how to write a scene from the inside out, try one of these 5 acting exercises.
1. Watch a scene from a movie where a character is experiencing something close to what you want to write
This is not stealing! It’s not plagiarism. It’s a chance to observe a situation you might never be able to observe in real life.
Then, turn off the YouTube player and close your eyes. Imagine yourself in the place you’re writing. Take a deep breath. Say out loud the things your character might say and think the things your character might think. Move your arms and legs the way your character might in that moment. It’s kind of amazing how much that will bring the scene to life in your mind. ACT OUT THE SCENE.
If you’re super self-conscious, do this in a locked room. Or whisper.
2. Act out an emotion
Think of a set of possible emotions your character might be feeling. Maybe it’s love. That would be nice! Or is it anxiety, curiosity, fear, excitement? Set a timer for 30 seconds. For that 30 seconds, ACT OUT the emotion. Whether you stuff yourself trembling into a corner, or stomp through the room in fury, give it your all, and do it authentically. Notice how acting this out made you feel physically. Because the amazing thing about humans is that sometimes doing a thing brings on the emotion, rather than the other way around.
3. Remember an emotion
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your character has just been committed to a psychiatric facility against their will. And let’s say that has never happened to you. You need to write about the emotion this engenders faithfully. What to do? You think of a time when something deeply unfair happened to you and you try to inhabit that moment.
What was around you when this happened? What objects were in the room? Remember the walls, furniture, lighting. Were there smells in that space? If there were other people with you, what were they wearing? What were you wearing? What sounds do you remember from that moment? If outside, what was the weather? Visualize until you begin to FEEL the feeling, and that’s what your character is feeling too.
As with all great actors, you can bottle that memory and use it anytime you need that particular emotion.
4. Adapt a relationship from your life
Your characters exist in relation to others. Even if you’re writing about a castaway, the character has memories and past relationships, not to mention whatever bad decision landed them in their predicament in the first place.
When your character is interacting with another character, think not just of their words or what they need to say to move the plot along, but what your MC’s relationship is to the person they’re with. Let’s say it’s a woman speaking with her friend. Ask yourself how does the MC feel about this friend. Remember a friendship that is similar to what this one is or should be. Remember how you felt when you were around this friend. Maybe you loved them. Maybe you found them tedious. Maybe you were always competing.
Set a timer for 30 seconds and remember how being around this person made you feel. Then write it down. Then adapt it for your scene.
5. Interview your character
Okay, yes, I’m sure you all know about character questionnaires. Right? RIGHT? If not, here is a handy list. If you can, answer these questions out loud, as your character. How is he/she sitting? Talking? What do they do with their hands? By the time you get to the last answer, you should feel nice and close to this person and you should be able to answer the questions your plot is asking of them.
• What’s your name?
• Do you have a nickname?
• Describe yourself to our radio audience, since they can’t see you.
• Tell me about your family.
• Who are you closest to?
• Is this the person you want to be closest to?
• Where were you born?
• Where do you live now?
• What’s your deepest secret?
• Who was your first love?
Well, there you have it. Give it a shot. Let me know if it worked for you.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.