Writing like an actress

June 20, 2016

I grew up as an actress. For a multitude of reasons as complex as my fluid perspective on identity and as simple as being cast as the lead in the kindergarten play. I was in plays throughout high school and college. I moved to LA, got an agent and had a co-star role on a tv show.  Then I decided that wasn’t the career for me.

But changing careers didn’t mean that I stopped exploring different characters and emotions; toying with them to discover the truth that lies within that moment and within the character. Before long I directed that creativity into writing. A few times my editor would ask something or I’d be discussing writing with a friend and I’d reply that I write like an actress.

At the time, I meant that I write first from a place of questions and emotion; digging into a story the same way I delve into a character. Who are these people to each other? Why did he leave? Why did she love him? How does this moment, this bit of dialog and emotion, make sense? Now, two novels and 9 years later, I understand more how my history as an actress impacts my writing.


I’ve heard a few times that reading scripts is an effective way to improve dialog. They’re all dialog with minimal scene direction. And a play, movie or tv show has to convey everything important in the words characters speak. Everything in between is supplied by the actors or the director. The writer’s work lives and dies by the dialog. Between school and working in the entertainment industry I’ve read hundreds of scripts and screenplays. Which is probably why dialog is one of the things that comes easily in my writing.

Once I set a scene in my head, know who’s in it and what they’re doing, then the conversation comes naturally. I can redirect the discussion by shifting a character’s emotional response. Or I can intensify it by adding some physical action between the lines for them to react to.

It’s also a way I move the story forward when I’m stuck. I have one of the characters voice whatever I don’t understand or can’t get past and the other character’s reaction gets the story flowing again. As a result, my earliest drafts have more dialog than anything else.


Plot, however, does not come easily and I attribute that to my history as an actress. Because actors are given the plot.

Their job is to find the emotional life in the dialog and channel that for the audience. What’s happened before only matters in how it impacts your motivation. What comes next doesn’t matter because the character doesn’t know it (most of the time). Everything as an actress is about the moment and you move from one moment to the next.

So I can write scenes just fine. I spent years writing scenes for different characters I imagined, knowing they could be larger stories. But I never knew what happened before and after and around those scenes to form a plot.

When I started writing Tattered Heart, I had characters and scenes. Some characters I had from the start (like John and Lydia) and others came later (like the dVoryan). Scenes like Aribella and Bion in the corridor to the library came easily and directed the plot. But I didn’t know how to string the scenes together and I was baffled by the idea of what happens next. It’s easy, as an actress, because what happens next is already right there on the page.

I found valuable resources in Patricia Wrede and Maggie Stiefvater that helped tremendously with Enchanted Storms and as I learned from them I posted the insights I gained, hoping to help others and also to solidify them in my mind and my writing. But plot will probably always be the piece I struggle with the most.


There is so much writing advice around characters from finding their motivation to understanding their secrets, knowing their wants and needs and anything else you can think of to help a writer create and express good characters. Because for a lot of readers, and also writers, character is the key to any story.

Characters are both easy and difficult for me. I’ve spent a lot of my life creating characters from the page or from my imagination, inhabiting characters, practicing how they move and how they speak and finding a way to tap into that key thing that suddenly unlocks a different person flowing through you. It’s work but it’s fun work and interesting work and part of why I love acting.

So creating characters isn’t hard. I still write first from a place of understanding, or being able to figure out, what the character feels and why and how that emotion drives what they do and say in a scene. Fleshing them out with names and characteristics and physical traits is almost instinctual, which would make writing one of those articles about creating characters pretty lame. Something along the lines of, “I think about it and I just know…” if this name is right or not; if they’re tall; if they’re shy or noble or flirty. Sometimes they come almost fully formed as soon as they have a name (as the dVoryan did) and sometimes I need to dig deeper to get them right. But a character isn’t a real person.  They can shift, become a little more ruthless, less angry or more broken for the sake of the story.

A lot of character building for me is asking questions to make the scene make sense. Why are they here? Who are they to each other? How did they fall in love and why is their love now broken? And part of writing like an actress means I’ve had a lot of practice finding answers to those types of question. The great thing is, there is no right or wrong answer. There is just this answer for this character in this moment. It’s a choice, once accepted followed through to its logical conclusion.

The hardest work is still, sometimes, unlocking that thing that makes the character really flow.

I had written Evanelle wrong for most of the drafts of Enchanted Storms without realizing it until the next to last draft. She was too much like Aribella (from Tattered Heart) and not reacting to things the way she would respond. So I went for a walk and let my thoughts unfurl while listening to my playlist. Then I realized the key to Evanelle is choice.

Aribella had her life foisted upon her. She accepted it. She went along willingly, for her own reasons. But Evanelle would never. She chose every moment of her life and she was willing, in every moment, to live or die by the consequences. Realizing that changed everything and I went back and fixed her dialog and it shifted the direction of most scenes and how characters reacted to her.

So characters are work. But they are fun work and interesting work and I love them.

And because I can do characters, they have become my key to plot.
It isn’t enough to know your characters. You have to reveal them to your reader. When I consider, “How do I show their deepest fear? How do I gradually expose their weakness? What would reveal what she really wants?” then I start to have a framework of a plot. I hope. We’ll see how well writing like an actress serves me with my next novel.

What about you? Which are the easier pieces for you to write? And have you found a way for the easier parts to help with the tougher ones?

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