I’ve learned a lot about theater over the past year through my interest in musicals, my college theater class, and participating in a couple of theater groups. Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve noticed a bunch of similarities between performing or writing a play and writing a story. We can draw a lot of writing tips from the stage.
6 Writing Tips to Learn From Theater
How is performing a play like writing a story? Here are six ways:
1. You have to be ready to improvise.
An actor can forget his lines at any time, a prop could be lost, sound effects can go off at the wrong moment, and any number of other things can go wrong during a production. The actors and crew have to be ready to change the way they approach the play in order to come back from these mistakes.
The same can be said for writing. Even if you have a perfectly outlined story, you could be in the middle of it and realize that you do need that character alive after all, or maybe you need more excitement in order to keep a reader’s interest. No matter how much you plan ahead, you have to be ready to change course if it better suits the story.
2. There are no small parts.
A character that only gets one line in a play could still have the power to change everything for your protagonist. Even characters who say nothing at all can completely alter the plot. The amount of scene time someone gets or how much dialogue they have does not directly correlate to how important they are.
3. You feed off your audience.
When an actor goes into comedy, it’s probably because they want to make people laugh. If an actress has a dramatic and tragic death scene, they’ll want the audience to shed a few tears. When the audience responds, it influences how the actors play their parts.
Writers can use their audience to improve, too. Share your writing with critique partners and beta readers and see how they respond to your work. Did they react the way you wanted them to? If they didn’t, that means there’s work to be done. Have them comment on your writing and decide what to do differently.
4. Your story has several acts and climaxes.
This is especially true for longer works. Typically, act one ends with a bang. It should leave an audience breathless or sobbing or laughing hysterically. You need to have a mini climax and leave them with a strong emotion and a cliffhanger so they stay for act two.
Once you make it to the final act, you go big or go home. The climax should be even more exciting than the one in the first act and the end should leave your audience satisfied.
5. Let your dialogue reveal your characters’ true natures.
Of course actors bring their own spin to whatever character they play, but the script of dialogue is where the character is first born. What the character says, how they respond to other characters, it all comes down to the spoken word.
Let your dialogue do the talking most of the time. Who are your characters? What do they say and how do they say it?
6. You can’t go straight to opening night.
Imagine being a director and telling your cast and crew that their first day on the job is opening night. They’d be shocked and panicked, right? Rehearsal is absolutely necessary to make performance day the best it can possibly be.
Your drafts are the same. A first draft is not a final product, no matter how short it is. Multiple revisions are key to making your story close to perfect. It may be a long and exhausting process, but you’ll feel great once you’re finished.
Page and Stage
Whether we’re writing a book or acting on the stage, we’re all ultimately telling compelling stories our readers and viewers want to hear. There’s a lot we can learn about storytelling from other media.
Of course, as writers we should read a lot. I’d argue we benefit from spending time in the theater, too. What play will you see next?
Can you think of other writing tips we can draw from theater? Let us know in the comments!