Before I knew I wanted to write professionally, I wanted to act. I went to a theater/film high school and I majored in performing arts in college and even before that–at the tender age of two–I acted in a Rescue 911 reenactment where I played the star-turning role of Girl with Foot Stuck in Toilet. Not a joke.
I switched to writing for what I realize in hindsight was a lot of reasons–that I preferred to work in solitude and that the focus on weight was unhealthy for me being chief among them. Sometimes people ask me if I miss acting, especially given all the time I put into studying it, but I honestly don’t. And what’s more, I’ve found that the years of studying acting actually helped make me a better writer.
There are a lot of methods of acting. The Stanislavsky method is probably the most widely known, but there are many. The one that always connected with me the most was Ivanna Chubbuck’s method, outlined in her book The Power of the Actor, which a teacher in high school introduced me to. Though it’s similar to Stanislavsky, there are some differences. I’ve found that I often think back on this method when I’m writing–often unconsciously–almost ten years after reading the book.
Why? The method boils down to asking a few small questions based on one larger one: What does this character want?
Chubbuck wrote that every character has an overall objective that precedes and (often) succeeds the frame of the story. This can and should be vague. Some characters want love, others power, others glory. This is something we often think about in other ways, like when we sort our characters into Hogwarts houses. This objective may not always tie directly into your story, especially in the case of supporting characters, but it’s something you have to know because it directly affects how your characters behave in any given circumstance. A character who craves glory is going to behave very differently when facing a dragon than a character who wants safety.
The example I’m going to be using throughout this post is the main character in Ash Princess, Theodosia. Theo has spent ten years powerless and raised by her enemies so what she wants most in the world is power.
Beyond the main objective, there are smaller objectives that will fit more neatly into your story arc. What does your character want in this particular moment. Sometimes an objective can change one a scene-by-scene basis, while others may last a little longer. Before I write a scene, I always figure out what my characters want in it and unlike earlier, now that objective needs to be specific and it needs to be active.
Theo wants power isn’t enough anymore. In one of the first scenes, Theo is called to see the Kaiser, the ruler of the people who conquered her country and killed her mother. For ten years the Kaiser has tormented and beaten her. Theo’s terrified of him. Her need for power is dormant in this moment. What Theo needs in this particular moment is to convince the Kaiser to keep her alive.
What is their ideal vision of this scene? What will happen if it doesn’t go their way? You often hear agents and editors talk about stakes and this is what they mean. Give your character something to gain and give them something to lose. Even if it’s not life and death like it is for Theo in this moment, every scene should always have its own stakes.
And now that your character has their goal, they need to work toward it. Above I used the word convince but that’s a bit on the vague side. How is she going to convince the Kaiser to keep her alive? These are your beats and they change as your character’s attempts change. One attempt might not work so your character should move on to another. Maybe they can’t talk another character into giving them the last piece of pie so they decide to wrestle it away from them instead. That’s a beat shift.
Of course, the other characters involved all have their own objectives and beats and that’s where the conflict comes in, giving you compelling scenes with high stakes that move the story along.
Keep in mind though, what works for me might not work for you. There are all kinds of writing methods out there to try out to see what fits your style.