Friday, 31 March 2017

Can Acting Make You a Better Writer?

By Nick Cross

If you’ve been religiously following the news updates from Slushpile HQ (you have, haven’t you?), then you’ll remember that at Christmas I decided to book myself onto a drama course. I’ve now finished my first six weeks in the beginners' group and have recently advanced to “intermediate” (I know, I know, Ryan Gosling should watch out).

While acting my little socks off, I’ve become aware that being a writer sometimes alters my approach to the stage. So, with the help of a SCBWI friend whose acting credentials are far more impressive than mine, I’m ready for my close up. Erm, I mean I’m ready to explore the question of whether acting makes you a better writer...

The Art of Showing Off

Being British, I’ve always been a bit conflicted about showing off. I’ve never enjoyed being the centre of attention, and yet in controlled situations it’s rather fun. Writing is the ultimate controlled situation, because you don’t have to allow anyone else to read it until you’ve polished it to a high shine. But I can work off the cuff as well – I’m pretty quick witted and can usually make my family or colleagues laugh on cue. Again though, this is working with a controlled (and reasonably predictable) group of people.

This is me, obvs

I’ve always liked characterisation, dialogue and character comedy. So drama feels like a natural extension of that, except if I’m doing the acting, I have nothing to hide behind. Suddenly, I’m in the spotlight, stuttering and twitching like a six-year-old who’s been sent to the head teacher.

So, acting pretty much terrifies me. But the paradox I’ve discovered is that once I summon up the courage to throw myself into a role, I really enjoy it. A few weeks ago, I had to act a scene where I was singing very loudly in a subway carriage. Now, I guarantee you’ve never heard me sing. And it’s not because I can’t sing, it’s mostly because of nerves. And also because I never get the breathing right, so it sounds like I’m being slowly strangled.

The scene began with me sitting alone onstage, and I had to start singing right away. Except, I couldn’t. I opened my mouth. I closed it again. I wondered what tortured noise would issue from my throat if I plucked up enough courage to force the air from my lungs. This went on for maybe ten seconds, but it felt like hours. I decided to have one more try before I gave up, drew a deep breath into my diaphragm and...

I sang.

Very loudly indeed.

For maximum cheese value, I had chosen Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi, and I gave it a howling, bellowing delivery that suited the character to a tee. People laughed, and thankfully they were laughing with me!

I'm not a method actor, so wasn't required to adopt any of these dreadful hairstyles

Being in the Moment

This is something I’m a bit rubbish at. Actually, the rise of mindfulness training suggests that a lot of us are a bit rubbish at it. You can write without being fully engaged, but it’s unsatisfying and very stop/start, because the rational side of your brain keeps interrupting the creative side. Drama and acting forces you to be directly in the moment, to go with your gut instinct and to improvise. These are all things that I used to be able to do when writing, until I became super-conscious of every word that I typed. So, I’m hoping to get back to that carefree state of experimentation.

Photo by Karoly Czifra

Building Confidence

When editors tell the inevitable story of discovering a future award-winning novel in their slushpile, they will often start out by discussing how the unique voice of the work immediately grabbed them. However, they will quickly move on to the fact that the writer displayed great confidence in their prose, world-building and characters, a confidence that left the editor convinced the story was taking them somewhere worth visiting.

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time second-guessing myself, this confidence level can be hard to achieve. But acting (especially in a supportive group) is a huge confidence-builder.

Ambiguity and Interpretation

As an actor, you become very aware of the ambiguity of some lines of dialogue. This is great for live drama, because it leaves room for interpretation. In a children’s book, however, the room for ambiguity is smaller, because you run the risk of confusing the reader. It takes practice to identify which lines of dialogue have the potential for confusion, and an editor can really help here.

Once you know where the problems lie, you can use all the same tricks that an actor would use to clarify a character's intent: stance, body language, phrasing and intonation. The latter is more limited of course – it would be a very boring book if you tried to describe the pitch, stress and pronunciation of every sentence – but you can use tricks like CAPITAL LETTERS and bold emphasis to help make dialogue as clear as possible.

Trusting Others

The trust exercise from Mean Girls

If you’re acting in (as opposed to directing) a play, you don’t get much chance to micromanage. Instead, you need to develop trust in your fellow actors’ ability to hit their marks and say their lines. Drama is often quite a selfless activity, as the success of a scene may come down to your willingness to make the other actors look good, rather than your willingness to show off.

These ideas can be applied back to your writing. How much are you willing to trust the reader of your work? This is also the other side of the ambiguity argument – spell everything out too clearly and you leave no room for the reader’s imagination, leave everything too vague and they may not know what you’re talking about.

Moving Beyond Your Comfort Zone

I attended an oral storytelling course with former National Storytelling Laureate Katrice Horsley a couple of years ago, and found it an uncomfortable experience. Katrice got us to dig deep and personalise our stories, telling them from a base of strong emotion. I found the combination of being in front of an audience while also baring my soul to be an almost overwhelming one, and I struggled to finish my tale without losing my way or bursting into tears!

Katrice Horsley in one of her more understated moods
(Photo courtesy of Wild Tribe Children's Festival)

I think I tried to jump too far out of my comfort zone that time, so since then, I’ve been gently pushing at the boundaries instead. When not improvising at the drama class, we have been performing other people’s material, and just acting in front of an audience is enough of a stretch for me right now.

Extending your comfort zone can only be a good thing, both in life and in writing. I find doing new things and meeting new people to be quite stressful, but ultimately rewarding. I hope that these new experiences will also help inspire me in my work.

An Expert View

So, I reckon acting does make you a better writer. But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what Katie Dale (accomplished actor and author of over ten published children’s books) had to say about it:

I think having acting experience is definitely helpful when writing, for a number of reasons. The first is that as an actor, you're used to physically inhabiting a character, thinking about how they'd move and speak, and how that expresses who they are and how they feel - so it becomes natural to think about and describe written characters in the same way.

Likewise, when performing a play, a character never (or very rarely) stands still whilst speaking - there's often staged "blocking" (movement or activity) which helps to express the character's motivation, feelings, and relationships, and this can be a very effective way of "showing not telling" what's going on in their head, both on stage and on the page. You also get used to working in scenes, and get a feel for the shape of a scene - and a whole play/story - which can help with structuring chapters, discovering how to create dramatic impact, and remembering to begin a scene as late - and finish it as early - as possible.

Finally, most of all, I think my written dialogue has benefited hugely from my acting background. A play on the page (especially a radio play) is pure dialogue - a whole story conveyed through speech alone - and consequently, dialogue is often what comes first and most naturally for me - and I always have to remind myself to go back and add description afterwards!

Thank you, Katie! I'm still very early in my own acting journey, so I'm sure there's more insight to come. For instance, we've been working on motivation and action the last couple of weeks, which has been fascinating. Who knows, maybe one day I will summon up the courage to stand in front of an audience of real-life schoolchildren! For now though, I'll leave you with these famous actors’ thoughts on the subject:

Acting is easier - writing is more creative. The lazy man vies with the industrious.
William Shatner

I'm not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.
Steve McQueen


Nick has been studying drama in Oxford with OXONDrama, taught by Rachel Mae Brady.

You can find the OXONDrama website here.

Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Ten-Minute Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Nick recently published a free fully-illustrated story called Mindworm on his website. Click here to read it.


  1. What a fantastic post! I found my self nodding and wondering whether I should sign up for an acting course as well! One of the best things I read this week.

  2. Great post, Nick. Thanks. Interesting that you found oral story-telling more exposing than acting. Would love to try both too.

  3. Brilliant, Nick! I've always thought that acting would be helpful on so many levels and this confirms it. I also enjoy a bit of controlled showing off both on and off the page.

  4. Very true. I recently had a few singing lessons, partly to try and sort out a croaky throat with good singing exercises, but also partly to do something totally out of my comfort zone but something I'd always loved the thought of. It was pretty terrifying! But it was also really good for me in terms of taking risks. Happy acting. x

  5. YES it definitely helps! I am quite shy normally, but when I slip into character I can quite happily perform in front of people. Although I can remember back to the time when public speaking of any kind found me crying in the loo before and after.


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