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Writing Lessons Learned from Acting!

When I began writing STILL ALICE, I had no creative writing experience. As a neuroscientist, I authored many research articles, but my writing was limited to research papers like this one: 5HT3 Receptor Activation is Required for Induction of Striatal C-fos and the phosphorylation of ATF-1 by Amphetamine. Exactly. This clearly didn't prepare me for writing fiction.

So what's a neuroscientist who wants to be a novelist to do? I read books on craft, great resources such as On Writing by Stephen King, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron (author of The Artist's Way, also a favorite), and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. But mostly, I learned to write novels through acting.

I trained as an actress for about nine hours a week while I was writing STILL ALICE. (LOL, my days were consumed with writing a novel in Starbucks and acting on stage in Boston--a far cry from lab rats and pipettes!). And I think acting was the best writing class I could've ever hoped to take. The principles of acting apply beautifully to writing. I remember sharing this philosophy once with Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle. I could tell she wasn't convinced during our conversation, but later, she had this to say in an interview with Publisher's Weekly:

Walls recalls that Lisa Genova was once asked what was the best advice anyone had ever given her regarding writing, and Genova responded, “Take an acting class.” Walls says, “At first, I thought, that is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. In writing The Silver Star, however, I finally understood that advice. You have to get inside your characters’ heads, to make them sympathetic, believable, and not two-dimensional.”

With every novel I write, I keep the principles I learned from acting in mind. Here they are:

Raise the stakes wherever you can!

Reveal the flaws

Find the humor

Where are the characters vulnerable?


Where do the characters share intimately?

What are the given circumstances?

Who is driving the scene? Who has the power? Does it shift? When and how?

What are the obstacles? Be aware of them, even if in the background.

What is the rhythm, pace, tempo?

What words are important, triggered, charged?

What is the character NOT saying or revealing? Where is the character censoring? What is the subtext? What is hidden beneath the surface?

What does each character desperately want? (forgiveness, love, salvation, acceptance) What happens if she doesn’t get it?

In each scene, is it the character’s first time, last time, last chance?

Find the moments of crisis—everything to gain, everything to lose.

For each character---what happens to me in this story? How am I changed?

Envision each character’s body, eyes, voice, gestures. Where is the voice placed? How much eye contact does the character make? Is the character expansive physically or introverted? Shy? Energetic? Nervous? Smart?

Wants that make you MORE vulnerable imply higher stakes and more risk.

Create environments by describing specific details of what is around you in a way that contributes to the emotional content of the scene (the weather, level of safety, whether someone might be listening, whether the chair is clean or dirty).

What is each character afraid of?

What does each character need to survive?

What are the ghosts in the scene? The past? The voices inside the character’s head?

What psychological gestures or ticks do the characters have?

Where is the sexual energy?

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