5 Ways Writing For Screen Will Improve Your Acting

Photo Source: Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

As a writer, I see many major ways in which learning the skill of screenwriting will expand your capabilities as an actor and improve your empathy and understanding of the process. Here are five.

1. Discover why the writer is not always to blame.
I often hear actors talk about how “terrible” dialogue is in a given script. Aside from the fact that actors would be well-advised to avoid auditioning for scripts they don’t like, this attitude is entirely unhelpful, especially when it’s a gut response and not the result of a deep exploration to divine if the dialogue they don’t like is simply dialogue they don’t understand.

If you don’t understand why a victim of domestic abuse in a film tells her husband she loves him, don’t blame the writer. Ask yourself why you can’t understand it. The answer may illuminate your own inherent biases, not the flaws in the writing. Better still, try writing a script yourself and see what others say when you invite them over to read it. Things that may be entirely clear and justifiable to you can be inconceivable to certain actors that read it. Redrafting on the writer’s part helps, but so does a little latitude on the part of the actor when reading.

2. Learn why specificity matters.
If you don’t see specifics as they’re written, there’s no way you can deliver on them in a script. Though some commas are in the script for grammatical sense only and not to be overtly performed, the omission of a comma in your reading can sometimes make the difference between two polar opposite meanings. (Check out my thoughts on textual specificity here and here.) The character’s idiom is also a great illustration of who they are. To revert to your pattern of speech and vocabulary may be comfortable, but it prevents you from truly transforming.

Try making a video of two friends having a conversation and then transcribe the exchange verbatim with all physical actions and reactions included. Once you do, you’ll understand how difficult a task it is to convey certain nuanced interactions in writing and how easy it is for your vision to be misinterpreted unless you include very clear and specific written clues for the reader and performer.

READ: Ready to Start Writing Your Own Content? Here’s How

3. See that your character is only one cog in a much larger machine.
It’s easy to become intensely focused on your character exclusively and to a certain extent, that’s not a bad thing. The director is in charge of the overall story and you can only know what your character knows.

That said, if you understand the place of your character in the entire narrative the way the writer does, you’re less likely to feel the desire to turn every scene into an Oscar-winning performance for yourself. Much of what an actor needs to perform is domestic, simple, and straightforward; the writer has done the rest of the work. You’ll realize this by punching out a few drafts of a story yourself in Final Draft and in the process, open your mind to how your character fits in the grand scheme of things.

4. Find freedom in how little is required by you to actually tell the story.
James Dean once said, “If you need to smoke a cigarette, smoke a cigarette.” An oversimplification? Not from a writer’s point of view, in many cases. When you write a story involving multiple characters, you already have an overarching vision of how each separate component figures in the larger narrative in mind. When you simply act, your character’s journey becomes all-important.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because let’s face it, you’re more concerned about your own life than that of the hairdresser you visited last month. But when you craft directions for the actor to perform as a writer, you will see how little you’re actually asking them to do. Anything more can often be a case of gilding the lily.

5. Develop an understanding of why writers often balk at actors changing dialogue.
If you’re frustrated because you can’t understand or deliver a certain piece of dialogue, the easiest thing to do is to say it the way you might. But please don’t. It’s a slippery slope. Explore the dialogue in as many ways as possible, assuming it’s no error on the writer’s part, simply a blind spot of your own. Only then, if you genuinely try multiple avenues and absolutely cannot find a way to deliver it, then consider changing it.

When you write a script yourself you’ll see why many writers are sad to see their writing distorted at the hands of actors that simply don’t spend enough time trying to see beyond their own way of speaking and thinking.

Learning creative disciplines other than acting can only help you as a performer. By learning to understand the demands facing a director or editor, you are more able to decipher the language of a director or provide eminently more usable takes to an editor, and by settling inside the mind of a writer, you give yourself a wonderful opportunity to improve your acting as well. And hey, maybe in the process you’ll pen an Oscar winner.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.