In my high school days, I took to the stage and loved it. It wasn’t the attention or being in the spotlight — I could do without that. It was all about the characters, experiencing life as someone else for a few minutes.
I got the lead sometimes, but my greatest lessons came when I was just a bit player. In one play, I had a small role with little dialog, but my part kept me on stage a lot of the time. I was given one main direction: Stay in the moment, react honestly to what’s going on. Through my reactions, the director told me, the audience knows it’s real.
In my novels, I try to become my characters and in every scene I try to think like them. What are their wants and needs in this particular moment? How would they react to what the other characters are doing or saying? What would they hide in their reaction and what would they show?
I saw this fantastic TED Talks video the other day with Charlie Todd discussing the hilarious antics of his Improv Everywhere group, which creates such seemingly random public scenes as a team of ghostbusters running through the New York Public Library, synchronized dancers in storefront windows and the annual no-pants subway ride. Awesome, right?
The entire TED Talks video is worth a watch (watch it below), but writers should pay particular attention to the beginning when Charlie shows that no-pants subway ride.
The premise is simple: A subway rider with a hidden camera films an unsuspecting passenger as people walk onto their car dressed completely normally except that they have no pants. What’s priceless, as Charlie describes, is the woman’s reactions to the no-pants riders. At first she tries to ignore them, then starts to get nervous, then shares a look with another passenger and that gives her permission to see the funny side and laugh.
The video is wonderful in how raw and real this person’s reactions are to the bizarre behaviour around her. And this is what us writers should be striving to have in our work.
When you’re writing, think of how your characters would react to what’s going on around them, even the ones at the back of the room who aren’t in the conversation. This is what makes the scenes real.
Here’s the video. Tell me if you can get through it without at least a smile…