Five Ways Directing Theater Taught Me How to Write, Part Four: Don’t Try So Hard

Okay, people, imagine you’re directing a play. Now, quick: what’s the fastest way to make an actor hate you?

If you said, “Add gratuitous nudity to every scene, even though this is just a musical based on Dr. Seuss stories,” you’d be right.

Theatreworks USA - Seussical
And you people call yourselves method.

You’d also be right if you said, “Give them a line reading.”

If you’ve ever watched a harried English teacher try their hand at directing the school play, you know what I’m talking about. Line readings are the way non-actor-types assume plays and movies are directed. It’s also the way even very highly trained industry professionals work if they happen to be hyper-controlling control monsters, or, as we like to call them, music directors. Look, I don’t try to teach them how to hit a high C, so you keep your dirty hands off my actors’ brains!

Line readings are when you say to the actor: say it just like this. And then you say it exactly the way you want to hear it said on stage, thereby making them into, for all intents and purposes, giant puppets made of flesh. But the problem – and the source of so much frustration among these directors – is that mimicry isn’t acting, and, more to the point, the actor isn’t you.

I KNOW! Life would be so much easier for us theatrical visionaries if we could just clone ourselves and play both Conrad Birdie AND Kim MacAfee because that’s not how one swoons, Michelle, no one swoons like that in real life, dammit, THIS IS HOW A 15-YEAR OLD GIRL FALLS INTO A ROCK STAR’S ARMS LIKE THIS.

Or, more relevant for me right now, it’s like when I try to coach my co-worker Suspicious Anna into making a really suspicious face by showing her what a suspicious face is supposed to look like because what are you even doing Anna, that’s not suspicious, that’s acid reflux.

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And no, Anna, the line isn’t “Why are you even taking my picture? I’m seriously calling HR.”

Serious actors will hate you for this, and audiences will hate you too, because the performances will come off as heavily mannered and phony – what audience members often refer to as “overacting” (not a real term, but we know what they mean).

Now comes the part where I try to draw a tenuous analogy to writing! I can do this, guys, I can do this.

At a certain point, you have to let go of the idea that you can jam your way into someone else’s head – actor or audience or reader – and make them see things exactly the way you do. This is the lesson we should all take from that Taoist masterpiece, INCEPTION: getting into people’s heads requires a subtle touch. You have to trust that might receive it, ink-blot-style, in a way that’s different from what you expected, and that they’re going to digest it and regurgitate it in a way that’s different from you, too, and maybe even…choke…can hardly say it…better.

This was a hard lesson I had to learn as both a director and a writer. I could go off here on the “show, don’t tell” thing, which is so, so relevant to everything we do, but that’s fairly common writerly advice that everyone’s read a million times. Instead, I’m going with: “less is more.” And by less, I am very specifically referring to “less adverbs.”

Writers, go ahead and do a Search in your manuscript for “LY” and then delete all your adverbs unless they are absolutely, non-negotiably essential for clarification. When I did this, very close to the end of my revision process, I wound up deleting about 80% of them, way more than I imagined I would. They all just felt like line readings to me: like I was trying to force the reader to hear the line said exactly the way I imagined it, and in the process just twisting and convoluting it and entirely un-clarifying it. I guarantee you: if you cut kill all the adverbs, you will wind up with a manuscript that feels 100% more dignified, refined and confident and 1000% less amateurish and desperate.

Trust the people whose brains you’re trying to hack. Trust the strength of your dialogue to convey everything it needs to convey without you screaming at the reader “LIKE THIS, SHE SAYS IT LIKE THIS!” If you feel like the dialogue isn’t conveying the emotion or the affect all on its own, then 90% of the time, that means you need to erase the line and write a better one.

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Something like, “Wait, are you blogging again? Do you even still work here?”

Next week: finally, the nitty-gritty. Let’s do some scene analysis!

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6 thoughts on “Five Ways Directing Theater Taught Me How to Write, Part Four: Don’t Try So Hard

  1. Wonderfully written piece here 🙂 I love how you tie adverbs in with line-readings, as they really are the same thing! I never thought about that before. You really inspire me to “direct” my characters as I would a cast, especially as I’m already a cinematic writer.

    Although I rarely struggle with adverb tags on dialogue anymore (I’ve just trained myself out of it), I still struggle with the hidden adverbs – “just”, “only”, “quite”, “really”, etc. Those sneaky, overused modifiers. Those always get highlighted and cut during the editing process.

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    1. Thanks so much! I’m so happy that you find this stuff relevant to your process. I never even thought to consider those sneaky hidden adverbs like “just” and “only” – that’s great advice!

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  2. Absolutely, Christian. Burn all the adverbs and ambivalent language, because they do nothing but slow down the narrative. I used to think Truman Capote was a writer to emulate given the strength of “In Cold Blood”, but then I read his short fiction collection, which was saturated with enough adverbs to induce tears. Breaks my heart thinking about it to this day.

    I gotta share this piece from my favourite author of all time, Elmore Leonard: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/21/elmore-leonard-10-rules-of-writing/

    He inspired me to stop using anything except “said” to denote dialogue. As writers, we don’t need to tell people how somebody says something. Trust the reader to be smarter than that. Excellent post.

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  3. Thanks! I’ll check out the Leonard article. I read somewhere that “said” is – I forget the exact term – a blank word or any empty word or something, meaning that readers are used to just gliding past it, and that when you replace it with synonyms, you just needlessly interrupt the flow of text. Sometimes we really miss the forest for the trees…

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