Turn Your Page into a Stage: a Little Theater in Your Fiction

by Nancy Means Wright

Ever since I played 18th-century Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer in high school I’ve been in love with theater. Decades later I can still recite the opening lines–in a British accent, of course: “I vow, Mr. Hardcastle, you’re veddy particulah!”  I recall the struggle to relate not only to a frustrated mother with a son my age, but to a female from a different century and culture. What could she and a 16-year-old girl possibly have in common? But then our director introduced us to the Stanislavsky method of acting, based on the concept of emotional memory in which an actor goes deep inside herself to recall moments of anger, sorrow or jealousy, and then transfers these feelings onstage, both physically and psychologically. In this way, the actor becomes not only the characters but her own self.

So I recalled the anxieties I had living in an all-girls school boarding school where my mother was a disciplinary housemother; and before that my older brothers, teachers, pastors, uncles who were forever, it seemed, shushing and telling me what to do. And I poured all these restrictions into the character of Mrs. Hardcastle, who was always being put upon.

Since then I’ve acted in or directed dozens of plays for amateur (mostly) and repertory theater. My son has inherited my passion and has his own Very Merry Theatre for children and young adults in Burlington, Vermont. Summers his ancient van travels the state, pulling a stage on a flatbed trailer. Many of the plays in his repertoire are adapted from Dickens and Shakespeare, keeping the original language, and a few are plays I’ve adapted for him from my own novels. For theater has crept into my writing as well; I can’t seem to keep my fictional characters from putting on amateur shows. In Midnight Fires, set in an Irish castle, my sleuth discovers a clue to a killer through a family rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a local village presentation of Macbeth heightens suspense as my sleuth observes the spectators’ reaction to Macbeth’s imaginary dagger.

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Of course I use “the method” to physically set the scene and to become my character(s).  I’ve always thought of a novel as a play in three or five acts, with each scene propelling the action forward. As I write, I’ve taught myself to envision the scene as if on a stage: to see how the characters use their props, to observe gestures, reactions to a bit of action or dialogue. To watch the body language: a shrug, a roving eye, a frown or grimace that suggests conflict. And then to show it as one does in theater.

It’s fun, for instance, to see how relationships alter as a character enters or exits a room. And I try to set a goal for each scene–a character’s desire or plan that either works or fails; at chapter’s end I leave a hook as a play might do. My spouse and I have been watching reruns of the 70’s Poldark, in which each episode ends with a gasp. Will Poldark escape when the smugglers are betrayed and the soldiers come charging? Will pregnant Demelza drown in her fishing boat when the storm blows up? We know the main characters will persevere, but oh, the suspense and conflict!

Most of all I use memory and transference to morph into my main character. It helps to nurture a close connection with the protagonist–a little empathy goes a long way. This has been easy with my historical Wollstonecraft series. For though far less famous, I have quite a lot in common with Mary: our writing and teaching, our conflicted nature (reason versus the hormones), our empty pockets, the faux pas we’ve made, and yes, the rejections. So through that connection I feel free to imagine and invent. In a new memoir, A Memory Palace, author Mira Bartok describes her traumatic brain injury after an 18-wheeler plowed into her car on the NY Thruway. To write her award-winning book, she employed a method called a “mental walk,” using visualization to recall information: faces, lists, emotions. She’d imagine the layout of a building, or placement of objects within a room, and then create links to things she wanted to remember. She’d take an imaginary journey through a house, recreating each room, letting it act as a memory peg: the kitchen might bring to mind a special event, or recall a person, an emotion.

In much the same way the mental walk might help us to turn into our fictional characters and thereby live alternate lives. Truly, I can’t think of any career, other than the actor’s, in which one writer can live so many lives–and in one book!

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22 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    I can see where a background in theatre would help a writer develop a novel. Theatre helps a great deal with dialogue, character development and plot.

    • Thanks, Jacqueline! My background was only partly in theater–I also taught fulltime, and wrote on weekends. The only problem for me was while directing a play, I couldn’t think, night or day, of anything except how to make a scene sparkle. And still try in writing.

  2. I can relate, Nancy. I acted in college and played an old woman in Dark of the Moon. My character was in a mob scene and I found out how easy it is to get caught up in the roar of the crowd when you’re fully emerged in the character. I try to do the same with my characters I’m writing. Also, my background in screenwriting help in showing, not telling.

    • Ah, you were a screenwriter, Laura! Then you really know how it can help to envision a scene in a novel. Thanks for adding your experience. I can just imagine that mob scene you got caught up in!

  3. My mentor, the late Sally Merlin, calls it finding our authentic selves. Good technique and great advice. I use a lot of playwriting and screenwriting techniques in my work, too. Have you read Playwriting: Structure of Action by Sam Smiley. Has some great stuff for novelists in there. 🙂

    • Oh, I love that thought: “finding our authentic selves.” So absolutely true. In a sense, finding our archetypal selves as well. And I’ll check out Smiley’s “Structure of Action.” Thanks so much, Pauline–I’ll look up Sally Merlin, too–(great name for a theater person)! And she was your mentor!

      • Sally was a most interesting person. A child of two Hollywood parents, she was in My Three Sons as a teen (the friend of one of the son’s girlfriends), a producer, script writer and script consultant, and she co-founded Script Magazine. She opened a script service in the 90’s and worked with me on some scripts (one of which was optioned!), but passed away from cancer five years ago. 😦 Her one book was Merln’s Musings, a collection of her columns in Script Magazine. Her process was pretty amazing. She really helped her clients tap into the real emotions, as you did, to fuel their scripts, etc. She became my friend as well and I miss her. (She discovered Short Circuit (though she did not get screen credit!) and a lot of other stuff. A remarkable talent all around.)

  4. A remarkable person, yes! Thanks for all this fascinating info, Pauline.I can understand why you would miss her. But she surely gave you a gift for your own writing. Now I’ll want to read Merlin’s Musings. Perhaps you should write about her–somewhere, somehow?

  5. I remember reading plays in college. They were more exciting than novels because they were easier to picture in action. I do argue with myself about the “telling” of a story versus the dialogue as narrator. Drama is a critical element, especially for fiction! dkchristi, author of Ghost Orchid and more – http://www.dkchristi.webs.com

    • Yes, DK, the visual aspect of plays is exciting. I’ve just been rereading King Lear, and Mon Dieu: the pacing! the drama! the quick change of scenes and landscapes, and we see all this through the dialogue. And you’re right: the old axiom “show don’t tell” is so important–yet there are times when we have to “tell”-or we’d be writing plays instead of novels.

  6. HI Nancy. This was a terrific post. I’ve always longed to write a play but in my youth was too shy to participate in the theater. Thanks for providing these great resources. A burning question, though, is where can I find those POLDARK reruns? That show truly knew how to engage their viewers.

    • Hi, Cindy: Never too late to write a play!I’ve done a few, but the actors keep changing lines, so it’s a constant interplay between writer, director, actor–and audience!…I found the Poldark 16-episode series on Netflix. There is even a second series, but haven’t found those yet.I lo-ove Poldark! (To think the poor actor is dead and buried now.) Glad you’re fully revived since co-running a great conference!

    • Cindy and Nancy,

      I too love Poldark. Bought both Series I and II on Amazon and had a lovely time watching them. BTW, Robin Ellis is still alive and well – and writing cookbooks!

      • Good news about series 2 of Poldark, Janet! We can rent it on netflix but have to pay about $2.99 an episode. So will surely look into Amazon and keep it for posterity.Thanks for that. It’s my 18th-century, too. Such fun!

  7. I just saw a “live” broadcast of the English National Theatre’s SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER in a movie theater. Your part, of Mrs Hardcastle, was acted (overacted, IMO) by Emma Thompson’s sister Sophie. I think theater’s rather broader acting styles don’t go over well on a movie screen.
    When I edit fiction I try to picture the action as on a movie screen, to catch continuity errors and the like. I seem to be more attuned to movies than plays, tho I do enjoy the latter.
    All of which is irrelevant to the excellent points you made on drama and writing!

    • That broadcast came to Middlebury, but alas, I had to be away. But I do reread the play off and on for the 18th-century language. And great, Meredith, to think of you picturing the action on a movie screen to catch continuity–good idea! I hadn’t thought of editors doing this, but of course it would work, whether stage or screen.

  8. Fun post. When I acted in school plays, I always wanted a villain’s part. Much more fun to act. These days, I like writing villains and heroines with attitude and a fair measure of snark. And yes, I dip into my wish-I’d-saids, my hurts, and my black thoughts to color my characters.

    • Linda, your comment is delightful: I love the thought of a “measure of snark…” And coloring your characters with your hurts, ah yes. We do that don’t we? It salves the psyche and helps the healing process. And I agree about playing villains. Much more fun than the la-de-dah female love interest! Thanks for this…

  9. Nancy, this is such an interesting post. I have some theater background as well, including studying at the Henry Street Playhouse in NYC–very much a method acting school. I agree completely about it’s usefulness in creating character, on the page as well as onstage.

    • The Henry Street Playhouse–how wonderful! It amazes me to realize how many of us writers are in love with the stage as well as the page.But it figures. Dickens, of course, loved both. Had Shakespeare lived a century or two later, he, too, would undoubtedly have tried his hand at a novel. I’d love to hear more about your experience with Henry Street.

  10. Great technique, Nancy. With today’s cinematic writing, it’s even more relevant to conceive of scenes this way. While not trained in acting or “the method,” I seem to have fallen into the practice naturally, of living in the character’s skin, based on my own life experiences,. Wishing I were my hero often makes it so. Maybe my theater experience helped. I designed lots of sets and saw many performances, but I was only in two plays, as Wally Webb in “Our Town,” and as a walk-on Seabee in “South Pacific.” But I’ll never forget my one line, either: “Aw Ma, by ten o’clock I gotta know all about Canada.”

    • That’s a great one liner, Peter! I’ve sometimes felt absurdly pressed like that by teachers and editors. Anyway, your set designs have certainly kept you close to the theater. And you’re right about cinematic writing being a help to writers.

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