On Behaving Like an Actor on the Stage

When I started, I was a poor actor.  Now, I’m still a poor actor, but at least I’m not in debt.

But what, forsooth, you might be thinking, was the problem with your acting?

Namely, this: That I was too aware of every part of the theatrical process.

As an actor, I was thinking about my placement on the stage.  I don’t mean this is in the sense of upstaging other actors, trying to make sure that I’m the most important person on stage, but that I envisioned the stage picture that the audience was getting.  I moved with an awareness of this picture, trying to help construct the most effective one.

The problem with this – in case you’re not thinking that “being considerate of the audience’s experience” is a problem – is that I’m not paying attention to my acting.  Well, of course I am, but that focus is distracted since I’m not just being an actor, I’m also taking on the role of the director.  It’s the director’s problem as regards my placement on stage, the placement of the other actors, and the final stage picture that develops for the audience.

Eventually, I learned to lighten up with my acting, and was able to step back and leave the worrying over the audience to the director (though I co-shoulder that worry with Theater 42).

Empty Theater

But what, forsooth, you might be thinking, does this have to do with writing?

First, you can’t really worry about the reader (i.e., the book’s audience), because you can’t control them.  Sure, you have readers who look over your book and give you criticism, fair or foul.  And, sure, you write for that ideal reader in your head.  But the truth is that the main concern of a writer is the writing.

If you get that far – and I hope we all will – then there’ll be agents and editors who are trained to think of your book’s audience.  Their livelihood depends on knowing how and where to sell your book.  And if it turns out that your book has no audience (well, according to them) then they’ll tell you that, too.

But writing is about creating a story, and in order to create that story, you need to give yourself free rein.  Yes, in revision all bets are off and there you might start winnowing your words towards a specific audience, but that kind of tailoring comes after you’ve written the novel, and the idea is a cohesive (even if not fully fleshed out) whole.

Second, if you’re thinking about the reader, then you’re more inclined to include extraneous details.  There is a wealth of background in any novel, not just fantasy or science fiction or historical novels, but most of that background isn’t needed for the reader.

If the voice in your novel is confident, and the plot strong, then readers will accept terms they’re unfamiliar with because the context of the novel will eventually make those terms clear.  Often, writers fear that a reader will be confused, and so laden down their text with details that explain every last bit of the novel’s world.  But readers don’t need to be led by the nose.

Trying to put every aspect of a novel inside the novel is like me, as an actor, trying to construct the entirety of the audience’s experience.  But you don’t need to explain everything, all you need to do is show them a picture.  Instead of presenting the reader with a fully-formed world, you show them a carefully chosen facet of the world.

The readers, with their wonderful imaginations, provide the rest.

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