4 Writing Tips I Learned at Drama School

As an undergrad at NYU, I saw the writing classes I took as “core curriculum,” pure and simple. Sure, they were rigorous and fun, but they distracted from my real focus—the studio where I spent twenty-five hours a week learning how to act. It took several post-grad years for me to come to terms with the fact that I was not a particularly spectacular actress and that my happiest moments were spent typing on my laptop, lost in worlds of my own making. But that drama degree was not in vain. My studio classes taught me crucial tenets of storytelling that have served me well as a novelist. Here are my top four:
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As an undergrad at NYU, I saw the writing classes I took as “core curriculum,” pure and simple. Sure, they were rigorous and fun, but they distracted from my real focus—the studio where I spent twenty-five hours a week learning how to act. It took several post-grad years for me to come to terms with the fact that I was not a particularly spectacular actress and that my happiest moments were spent typing on my laptop, lost in worlds of my own making.

But that drama degree was not in vain. My studio classes taught me crucial tenets of storytelling that have served me well as a novelist. Here are my top four:

the-wrong-side-of-right-novel-cover
jenn-marie-thorne

Column by Jenn Marie Thorne, who writes YA fiction from her home in Gulfport, Florida, alongside her husband, two young sons, and trusty hound Molly. An erstwhile drama major, Jenn still enjoys making a fool of herself on at least a weekly basis. THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT (Dial, March 2015, young adult) is her debut novel. In a starred review, Booklist said of the title: "Both intelligent and heartfelt, as Kate finds unexpected love as well as unimagined courage. . . . Not only does Thorne give readers a moving coming-of-age story, but casts a critical eye on the state of American politics." Connect with Jenn on Twitter.

DO YOUR PREP

The first step in learning a new role is not memorizing your lines—it’s getting to know the character so fully that you could step into her life and not miss a beat. First you analyze the script for revelatory details. Then you ask questions, figure out where the gaps are in your understanding. Then, crucially, you research.

Is the character a tollbooth operator with a taxidermy hobby? Watch how tollbooth operators do their jobs. Practice the way they move, so the routine of it sets into your bones. Learn about taxidermy. Too squeamish to visit a real taxidermist? There’s a YouTube video for that. And then go further—ask why this character became a tollbooth operator. Is it her dream? If not, what was? What draws her to taxidermy? What need does it fill?

I asked endless questions before I sat down to draft THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT, from “What are the basic components of a political campaign?” to “What stage of grief typically lasts the longest?” As I wrote and revised, I found more to question, to research, to delve into, to imagine—and again and again with each subsequent draft. If you never run out of questions, you will never run out of story.

MINE YOUR REHEARSALS

One thing I heard over and over again in drama school was, “Stop performing.” Rehearsals are for “exploring,” our teachers told us, for “playing.” Playing with movement, with voice, with emotional colors and beats, unencumbered by the pressure that comes with a paying audience.

Drafts serve the same purpose as rehearsals. If you treat each draft as a chance to explore, rather than a product to be handed over to readers, you have room for your story to expand in unexpected and remarkable directions. Try out present tense. Kill off a POV character. See how the story changes if it’s narrated by the neighbor’s cat. Just play—then step back and see what you’ll keep, what you learned, how to use it in the next round.

(What does a literary agent want to see when they Google you?)

REMEMBER THE BASICS

There are mechanics to stage performance that you forget at your own peril. It doesn’t matter how nuanced your characterization is or how lived-in your physicality—if the audience can’t hear your dialogue or finds itself distracted by poor blocking, they’ll be too bored to take note of your brilliant acting.

In writing, this means not only composing clean, lucid prose wherever possible, but also making choices about where the reader’s focus should land. You could—and should—imagine myriad details about each scene, from the color of the ballroom’s peeling wallpaper to the clapping style of a giddy conference attendee, but if what drives the story is the person up at the podium, you need to cut anything that threatens to upstage him. Otherwise, what’s fascinating to you becomes deathly boring to your audience.

EVERY CHARACTER IS THE MAIN CHARACTER

As a student actress, I got a lot of small roles. (Perhaps, in hindsight, this should have been a red flag.) But I did my best to invest those characters with their own motivations, their own lives and dreams and habits. After all, they didn’t know they weren’t protagonists. Even a villain thinks he’s a hero.

I took this to heart while writing THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT. One of the antagonists is Elliott Webb, a campaign strategist who clashes with Kate throughout the novel. But as the author, I sympathize with Elliott. He’s a consummate professional, running the campaign of his career, only to find it derailed by a clueless sixteen-year-old. Knowing his motivations helped me flesh him out as a character, so that his actions weren’t just organic, they were justified.

Through these four key lessons, drama school taught me how to broaden and sharpen my imagination, to use it as an instrument. I never wound up showcasing those skills on the big screen. But as a writer, I get to build a world whenever I like and play every role within it—and nothing could be more fun than that.

(Query letter pet peeves -- Agents Tell All.)

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