Can the theater make me a better writer?

By Jessica Brodie

My preteen daughter has been doing a summer theater program for junior actors, and parents are allowed to sit in and watch, provided we stay in the background and keep our mouths shut. I did a lot of acting as a kid myself (it’s the very thing that transformed me from “painfully shy” to “reasonably sociable”), so it’s rather fun to relearn from afar the things I was taught all those years ago.

At a recent rehearsal, it struck me that a lot of the stage lessons also apply to good fiction writing—and can even make us better writers. Here are a few:

1. Stay in character

An actor needs to truly become the part he or she plays. She can’t slip out of the role onstage without confusing the audience. We need to believe the mermaid princess Ariel genuinely loves Prince Eric for the show to work; if she suddenly seems disinterested in him, the story falls apart.

Same thing with writing—I need to stay in my character’s head, stay in his or her “voice.” In one of my books, I have a character who is a ten-year-old boy living in poverty. When I’m in a chapter told from his perspective, I can’t start using words he wouldn’t use or the story starts to unravel. He wouldn’t walk down the street and notice the “dilapidated” houses because it’s not the sort of vocabulary he possesses. He’d walk down the street and notice the “beat-up houses with the raggedy roofs.”

2. Make an entrance

When a lead actor comes onstage, he or she needs to stride on, make a splash, seize the moment, own the spotlight. This tells the audience, “Ah! Something significant is about to happen. Pay attention.”

With writing, it’s the same. We use our words to orient the reader to the setting and character, to help the reader picture the scene. If a scene is in a coffee shop, we need to help our readers hear the hiss of the espresso machine, smell the French roast, see the cute little bistro tables or the shaggy-haired barista.

We also want to know body language. Are the characters lounging about on their tablets during the discussion, or are they “into” each other—leaning in, reaching across the table to gently tap his hand, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear?

Show us. Help us picture the setting and the characters.

3. Don’t let the audience see backstage

Theater tries to create an imaginary world, but the audience isn’t supposed to see the orchestrations behind the scenes—we’re supposed to be caught up in the world entirely, to lose ourselves in the characters and the story. We might see the curtains at first, but eventually they fade into the periphery, and we no longer notice them. We might see a shadowy stagehand moving props into place between scenes, but it’s supposed to happen quickly and discreetly, without allowing our mood or attention to be diverted.

In writing, we’re not supposed to notice the foreshadowing or the clues; it shouldn’t be so obvious that we’re paying attention to the author’s technique rather than the story or characters. Readers know there’s an art to writing, but they don’t want to know that part; they want to get caught up in the story and the pace and the action, to escape reality and live awhile in the alternate world the author has created.

Those are a few. What do you think? How else does theater apply to fiction writing?

Jessica Brodie is a Christian author, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach. Read more of her blogs here, or check out her bio and fiction and journalism work here.