How Can Theater Training and Storytelling Improve Your Fiction?

Killer Nashville

I wrote this last year  as a guest blogger for Killer Nashville.. It appeared on July 11, 2017. 

Headshot  Lynn HessseMy job is writing, but I am a member of three community performance troupes involving storytelling, movement, and singing. My improvisation skills, stage experience, and playwriting enrich my fiction. Here is the Cliff Note version for non-actors or non-performers listing reasons why you might want to give my suggestions a try and develop theater and storytelling skills.

Backstage Decisions Made by Actors and Directors:

Structure of scene: Performance of the same material teaches you what is essential in a scene. If you took the line of dialogue or a character out of the scene it wouldn’t work. Every character must come out of the scene changed, however mundane. Maybe it’s the character Aunt Mary’s job to introduce the red herring or the poisonous mushrooms she unpacked from a grocery bag. Every person in the scene has a reason for being there, and they must show the audience what is not stated outright in dialogue. If not, those pretty phrases or funny bits you love so much need to be cut. What is the scene doing for the entire structure?

What about the lines that hint at upcoming events or help the reader understand the desires or fears of the character? Yes. The Character’s Motivation: What does each character want, their little and big Ds, or desires, and what is blocking them from obtaining those needs? In my novel Well of Rage the overriding desires for my protagonist, Carly Redmund, are to survive and solve the cold-case murder of an African-American teenager, but the rookie’s underlining desires are to start again in a new city, Mobile, Alabama, and find forgiveness. Carly’s mannerism and speech patterns emphasize these wishes.

Research to Inform Backstory:

I visited Mobile, talked to the curators of the Mobile Mardi Gras Museum, went to the library, walked the streets, read books, and scoured the web data to make the city of Mobile come alive on the page. Could the story have been set in a different southern city? Yes, but from my perspective, Mobile has a unique history, culture, and is the right size to highlight the racism and sexism embedded in any governmental structure. Hemingway used the iceberg principle in the Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 21 to illustrate most of what an author knows about a subject can be omitted because seven-eighths of its underwater in the story. The reader understands without being told, but if the writer omits because they don’t know something, a hole is left in the story.

The Character’s Physicality, Movements, and Gestures:

I am a dancer and expressing an intention without words is my first go-to, but play writing helped me hone the ear for dialogue and gestures particular to each character. I study people in restaurants and walking on the streets. You can tell a lot about a person by their posture, gait, how they eat food, their ticks, or their use of humor to misdirect, embarrass, or get noticed. A person’s physicality can be deceiving. A writer can use all these tools to inform or lead the reader to conclusions about characters and plot, but that brings up another question. Why does a reader invest or care about a character? I suggest examining point of view from backstage.

How far away do you want your reader to view your characters? I used multiple points of views in my finished manuscript, “Another Kind of Hero.” In the theater, as well as fiction, a narrator can be unreliable or reliable. Heroes can be reluctant or gung ho. All these factors came into play as I made my decision about POV. I used first person for the narrator scenes and third person for the others. Combining POVs can be tricky, but I realized early on I had two plots weaving together: I had a DEA agent trying to take down a drug pipeline, an opinionated narrator, and a casket full of money and drugs at the Pick’n Pay in Forsyth, Georgia leading dissimilar sisters into jeopardy. I wanted to convey small town life in Georgia in an intimate way to preserve the dignity of the southern culture while examining the hypocrisies that plague American life in our pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. By the way, using my storytelling skills helped to convey a fireside chat feeling between the narrator and the reader.

Don’t laugh. Wanda, the ghost, woke me up one morning and insisted she be put in the manuscript. I realized her voice had been developing through several shelved manuscripts and many improvisational performances. If I can say one true thing through Wanda’s voice, I will be happy.

Summary:

You don’t need to take acting lessons or manage backstage to gain the skills I’ve listed, but it is a fun, hands-on approach I recommend.

Lynn Hesse, the first place winner in the 2015 Oak Tree Press Writing Contest, Cop Tales launched her debut novel Well of Rage as an Atlanta Writers Club Author Panelist, 2016 Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, Georgia. Her 5-star rated novel on Amazon is based on her law enforcement experience and shows how the “isms” separate us. The themes of her fiction and short plays focus on re-framing traumatic events, taking a look at the facts, and then using humor and forgiveness to heal. A detailed interview about Lynn’s police career and the performance video Blue Steel can be seen in The Women’s Archives, Second Feminist Movement, Georgia State University. Lynn is a performance artist and lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Reach her at her website here.

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

 

 

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