Writing is Acting: How to Improve the Writer’s Onpage Performance by Bobbi J. G. Weiss is one of those good books on the craft of writing I don’t see too often. It reminds me of The Tao of Writing by Ralph L. Wahlstrom, which explores how the principles of Taoism enhance creativity and the writing process. Writing is Acting, similarly, utilizes the principles of acting, gathered from Weiss’s experience as an actor, to show how, with proper practice, determination, and experience in acting, your writing will improve.
So… does this happen? By doing these exercises, can one’s writing improve?
Most certainly, yes. They will let you feel more viscerally, think more creatively, and sharpen your artistic skills.
However, the reason I give Writing is Acting four stars is because while I enjoyed Weiss helping me along, I thought things could have been organized and expanded a bit more.
Writing is Acting is geared toward the beginning writer or the intermediate writer that has read a couple of books on the craft of writing, but has found that none of the advice in them has stuck. The book covers all common topics one would find in a craft book: characters, plot, dialogue, revision, creativity, and more. With “Tools, Techniques, and Tricks” designed to help the writer get to know human nature better, create better characters and plots, and fine-tune their craft, Weiss shows the reader how to be a better writer by being a better actor.
And it works.
Lately, I’d been in a writing funk, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew that I, as the writer, was actor, director, camera woman, stage lighting, producer, and everything in between. I also knew that I should let my imagination run wild. I also knew that my character should want something and that there should be an obstacle in their way while getting it. But something just wasn’t clicking. Then, Weiss made it click with the following advice on writing via acting principles:
If a superobjective is a character’s overall goal in a story, and if a scene objective is a character’s goal in a single scene, then a beat objective is a character’s goal in a single beat (a beat is a term that refers to a unit of action within a scene). Most scenes consist of a series of actions, not just one. And for the actor (and your characters), each of those actions–thosebeats–has its own little objective.
Most books on the craft of writing tell you that your characters should want things, that they shouldn’t always get them, and then leave things at that. However, Writing is Acting takes it further by showing you that characters, like actors–like human beings, know what they want all the time, and that these wants can change throughout a scene itself, throughout chapters, and throughout the entire book. Your character might want to date another character, but first, they have to want to go out to lunch with them, then decide what they want to eat/wear/say, and every little thing in between. Those little things in between are the beats of a script, and the beats of a scene that form the pulse of your story. I’d heard of beats, but I never really understood them in relation to writing until I viewed it from an actor’s perspective.
That is good stuff, and it’s what’s getting me out of my writerly funk these days, thanks to Weiss.
Yet sometimes, this emphasis on being a better actor overshadows the emphasis on how to be a better writer.
Now, I get it. Weiss makes it very clear that writing is acting, and I don’t disagree with her:
We humans are goal-oriented creatures. We want food, we want shelter, we want love. In order to achieve these and many other goals, we “act” in ways that will bring us the best results. …Sometimes, we even write speeches down or practice them out loud before a mirror, as in the case of job interviews, first dates, or that moment when you ask your boss for a raise. We compose text in our heads, revise it, and edit it, shaping it just right so that it communicates exactly what we want to say at just the right moment.
And it’s also acting. The exercises in the book are mainly acting exercises for the purpose of better writing. She also gives a few examples of her writing, illustrating how acting helps her improve her description and characters.
But that’s it. Mostly exercises, explanations, and not a whole lot of writing examples to go with them.
By the end of The Tao of Writing, I did not want to become a Taoist. I still wanted to be a writer.
By the end of Writing is Acting, I knew how to be a better actor, which would make me a better writer. But even though writing and acting are very similar, to the point of sharing similar techniques and goals, they are still different. I am a writer, and I would have liked a little more in the way of translating that acting advice into writing advice with “onpage” performance examples.
Yet while Writing is Acting lacks in these examples, I still believe it will help any writer improve their onpage performance.
Recommended for the beginner, the intermediate, and the writer who has always felt the need to get physical with their scenes and really be there with their characters.