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Get Yourself on Set: What Writers Can Learn From Actors

January 20, 2017
4 min read time

It’s often obvious from the script if a writer has never set foot on a production set. When an aspiring screenwriter asks me how to learn the craft, my go-to advice is always, “Get yourself on a set.”

It’s the lab component of chemistry class. Books teach you the chemical formulas; sets show you the real life reactions. In this three-part series, I’ll explore why and how to get on a film set, starting with what you can discover from living, breathing actors ... and maybe even from trying to act yourself.

“Don’t direct from the page” is a common mantra, but what does it mean? How do you guide without directing?


Blocking, if you’re not familiar with the term, is marking out the physical movements an actor will make during a scene. Directors and actors generally determine blocking together. Sometimes stand-ins—who stand in for the principal actors before shooting to help in setting up camera angles, etc.—lay out some blocking. Set design, props, and other production elements also come into play (more on production in Part II).

Watch a rehearsal, and you’ll find most actors fly right past any blocking on the page. “She leans on the desk, grinning at her prisoner” is non-essential blocking. Perhaps that’s the way the scene plays out in your head, but 10 actors will come up with 20 different actions just as natural. Skip empty blocking and let the actor do his or her job.

On the other hand, let’s say that, on the heels of a vicious fight from which this same character emerges victorious, your direction reads, “She leans on the desk, grinning at her prisoner, her fingers gripping the edge a little too hard.” It’s clunky, but now you’re giving your actor insight, both emotional and physical. That is guidance without directing. Actors might take your suggestion or test their own externalizations (they have a habit of doing that), but you’ve given them a solid kernel of truth.


It’s clear when writers have never read their own lines aloud, even to themselves. But even when lines are not stilted, robotic, or overly unnatural, lines that seem simple enough may stick in the mouth. I have rewritten poetic, heartfelt clauses that look elegant on paper because talented actors tripped over them repeatedly. This doesn’t mean you need to dumb it down. Just be open to listening if something doesn’t roll well off the tongue.

Words may also come out as something entirely unintended. Your coming-of-age story’s mentor might aim to inspire when he encourages the heroine to “Let it rip if art is your passion!” But say that out loud to a group of sixth-graders and watch them collapse in a fit of giggles. Or worse.

An efficient setting to see how actors work is a cold-read audition (more on how to find these in Part III). In a cold read, actors read sides (excerpts) with little preparation, often with other actors. It’s incredible to hear how many ways people can say the exact same words, how interpretations evolve as actors play off each other. You may be stunned by what someone unfamiliar with your character’s backstory will bring out. You may even learn things you never knew about your character.

Be sparing with wrylies (parenthetical instructions), ellipses, underlining—in other words, directing—not because screenwriting manuals tell you to, but because that’s not how acting works. As with written blocking, actors will ignore it. Dialogue that’s truly authentic to the character, truly individuated, will far more effectively guide the actor toward your vision.

In one two-character scene I wrote, a skilled actor kept stumbling over a single word. Were the characters paramours? Siblings? Exes? The line fell flat in every scenario. Frustrated, the actor changed a core facet in the character’s psyche. My gut reaction: “That’s not who he is!” But his new take allowed the original essence of the relationship to shine, and suddenly that one word made complete, organic sense to everyone. What did I learn? 1) Creative artists will experiment, no matter what’s written. 2) Authentic dialogue will help them more than writing unfilmables or directing from the page. 3) There is more than one right way.


Try your hand at acting. One of the priceless things you’ll learn is simply how it feels to act. The ideas you bring to the table may vary wildly from those of the director, the other actors, the writer (if he or she is on set). Something seemingly obvious to you might run completely counter to the writer’s intent—and you might find yourself resisting input as much as you, as a writer, balk at even the prospect of an actor modifying your script.

Most importantly, you’ll get an idea of how to feed actors—and, thus, to attract them. Spend two hours repeating lines like, “Hello! ... Yes, good to see you, too! ... Oh, not much ... Yes, I’d love some coffee,” and you’ll realize that filler gives you and your fellow actors little to work with. Huddle in your car while actual DEA guys playing onscreen DEA guys fire live ammunition outside your window, and your body might react differently than you ever imagined. Be the woman screaming ineffectively while the villain attacks her husband; you will feel how long those two minutes of inaction stretch out and wonder, “Would she really do nothing?” Maybe she would, but you will understand your character’s situation more viscerally.

As writers, we spend weeks, months, years living out fantasies in our imagination. Experiencing scripts as an actor, even once, throws you into the tactile, fully realized, three-dimensional world of the words on the page. And that can only deepen your craft.

In my next column, we’ll look at how production experience can inform your writing.

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