August 31, 2011

Acting Out

I usually keep my office door closed when I'm writing. It's not that there's too much noise from the rest of the house. It's that I'm often making too much noise inside.

I read my work aloud frequently. Reading aloud is a great way to check that your sentences flow, that dialogue sounds lifelike, and that you haven't accidentally left out any words.

But when I'm writing a big emotional scene, as I so often am lately (this series of confrontations between my characters may drag on forever), I don't simply read the words. I act them out, speaking with the appropriate tone of voice and even the appropriate volume if nobody is in earshot to be disturbed. I wave my hands and stomp around the room and occasionally grimace at myself in the mirror.

There is, I think, a point to doing this. A line of dialogue that sounds perfectly reasonable in a calm conversation might be too long to believably shout in anger. In acting out an argument, I might decide it needs more sputtering and interruptions to convey the level of the fury the characters have worked themselves into. I might realize that a fight fizzles out too suddenly or that the characters have been shouting long enough to make themselves hoarse (I can end up quite worn out after one of these writing sessions).

In all kinds of scenes, I find myself needing to position my body parts in the same way as my characters in order to accurately describe how that looks or feels. (Do I really mean "all kinds of scenes"? That question is left as an exercise for the reader.) How exactly do you explain that hand gesture that means "so-so"? What precisely happens to the eyebrows in a worried expression?

For a few years in high school and college, I wanted to be an actor. I was only so-so at it (that's: "I held out a flat hand and waggled it"), and the desire passed. Now I'm happy to do my acting behind the privacy of my closed door.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mary Robinette Kowal describes her clever strategy for avoiding anachronisms in a novel set in 1815: "I decided to create a Jane Austen word list, from the complete works of Jane Austen, and use that as my spellcheck dictionary. It flagged any word that she didn’t use, which allowed me to look it up to see if it existed."


Anna Scott Graham said...

Once I was driving around, mumbling characters to myself alone in the car. Later that day my youngest said she was with friends, who saw me talking to myself while driving. She had told them I was singing, but that wasn't true. It's important to hear those words, those voices, better to make them ring true!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Hee hee! If I'm talking out loud in the car by myself, it's usually because I'm arguing with the radio!

Anonymous said...

A number of years ago, now, I was in a long-running roleplaying campaign, in which some of the playing was done by email, and in which I played a character who communicated entirely through pantomime and telepathically-communicated visual images (which, since I'm not actually telepathic and drawing would take too long even if I were any good at it, meant visual images as verbally described by me).

This caused me to think a lot about how to describe gestures and actions in words, as well as how to use metaphors to convey my point. Also, even though the other characters could talk, when we did extended scenes over instant message or email, there ended up being a lot of describing of body language and gestures -- including a number of moments like the one you describe with the so-so gesture, where someone would be flailing around trying to describe a gesture whose meaning is instantly clear when seen (clear within the right cultural context, of course!)

The example that leaps to mind:

Me: [My character] turns around so she can see him and stares at him with raised eyebrows.

Other Player: is that head-lowered eyebrows raised for something like "Okay, try that one again" or head-raised eyebrows raise for something like "Is there more?"

It had not occurred to me to think about the angle of my character's chin -- and in fact it would have been clunky and awkward to describe it -- but I knew exactly what image the other player had in her head, and which of the two positions I meant, because she was right, if I were raising my eyebrows in challenge I'd tuck my chin down, while if I were raising them in encouraging inquiry, I'd lift my chin.

Of course, all this just makes me throw up in my hands in disgust at the inadequacy of words and the far more satisfying beauty of, say, acting... :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Now that I've gotten past boggling at the fact that you had to play a character who didn't talk in a game conducted at least partially in a textual medium -- yeah, describing gestures and facial expressions is really tricky, often to the point that it doesn't seem worth it. I've stared at myself making faces in the mirror for several minutes and then gone back and written, "She gave me a skeptical look" because it's so much clearer and more concise than trying to accurately describe the eyebrow angle and shape of the frown.

This is why scripts and screenplays are so much shorter than novels. :)

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