Acting Techniques for Writers

Acting is a sister science to writing. Writers can benefit from understanding the craft of acting in order to more fully explore the characters in their own work.

In this talk, we’ll explore some key acting techniques that can help the writer shift their approach to characterization. A few are commonly referred to as strong “wants”, the power of a “moment before”, “as if”, having an “actors secret” and how not to judge a villain, or any character at that, as everyone feels right from their point of view. We’ll also discuss a few screenwriting techniques, which can also be an exceptionally useful to reference.

Thanks to Jolyn Janis for her time and the presentation! The original event can be found on

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Notes and References


What is acting?

(Technically,) Acting is when an individual takes on the role, behavior, attitudes, etc. of another person, perhaps in a scripted environment like a play or film.


But if acting is merely pretending to be someone else, then anyone can do it. As a matter of fact we all do it – every day. Seriously, can you actually get through a day without a moment of acting – of pretense? Perhaps you are not pretending to be someone else. But, how often in one day do you pretend? How often do you hide your truth? (The dictionary definition of pretend: “to act as if something were true”). For example, how often do you pretend to be pleased, or disappointed, or interested? How often do you hide your impatience, annoyance, anger or fear? We all do this. It’s a central part of the human condition. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival. Pretending is a technique we use to maneuver the rapids of daily existence. And this makes us all actors – to an extent. And then we could discuss those moments when we are accused of acting, of faking it, pretending or lying. And you know how often you can recognize when someone is not being authentic, honest, or truthful. Acting is a part of our lives, everyday.


Meisner Technique

One of several major American techniques

Sanford Meisner founded the technique

Sanford Meisner founded the technique. Learn to live in the moment as an actor, and let go of any idea of result. Learn what it means to really “do” and to respond truthfully to a given moment based on what you get from your partner. Through improvisation, emotional truth and personal response learn to resonate authenticity within a given circumstance. Only in this way will you begin to understand the definition of real acting, which is “to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances”.


Stay in the moment

Rather than listening to what is being said, most people are thinking ahead to what they want to say and acting they way they think they’re supposed to. We are all acting all the time, really. Its a humbling and interesting experience to dive into the inauthenticities we become throughout all arenas of our lives.

Figure out how to shake up things for your characters so they can’t anticipate ahead of the action.

“Think about the hidden things in your story whenever two characters interact, and see how you can use them to add tension and energy. For example, suppose you have a father meeting a son for the first time. The mother has agreed to this meeting on the condition the father does not reveal the truth. In what ways would the father act differently under these conditions than he might otherwise? In what ways does the strain of the secrecy come out in the dialogue? In the father’s actions? What tension does the son pick up on? What tension does he miss entirely? Thinking in this way, exploring the “what’s between” in your story and how you can use it to build tension and character, will add that extra dimension and depth to your scenes.”

Don’t judge your characters

Nor their actions. Let them be themselves and let yourself “go there” with them, no matter how uncomfortable. Everyone feels justified in their point of view, including the “villains”. Besides, one story’s villain is another story’s hero. Sometimes its powerful to think about what also makes your hero someone else’s villain. Play around with morals and perspective that is other than your own.

Writing a draft is like rehearsal

No one is filming yet, it’s not locked into film, so give yourself room to play and see what happens. And even then you probably have additional takes. Ultimately, let yourself go big and perhaps even ridiculous. You can always rein it in, it’s harder to go bigger and bolder than it is to tone it down.

Each actor brings their unique voice to pages

Different actors bring their own unique voice to each character on the page. How can writers allow for that element of surprise? They already do, inherently, as we are all different people. This is important in remembering that even if a characteristic is similar to a story we’ve read or seen, we bring a uniqueness to it that no one else can replicate, even if they tried.

Supporting roles

Never forget about them. Think of each Supporting as another story’s hero. They’re just as vibrant and rich in qualities, they just end up supporting this story’s Main Character in their journey. I like to think about how I’m playing Supporting in other people’s lives. Sometimes we show up and that other person says “That’s just what I needed to hear right now”. They are important mirrors for the leads. Their goals and setbacks are not usually very well defined. How can you round out their actions?

Don’t force the action if it doesn’t feel right

Acting, if you try and force what character is ‘supposed’ to do, it falls flat. We’ve all seen it. It’s memorably what many often generalize as “bad acting”. Most likely, the actor may be trying to Show you the character instead of living through it and Being the character. This often comes from training and also from not feeling secure in the character which can come from not doing enough research. Interestingly, if you ever see a big budget film that hasn’t been fine tune edited, you will notice that even great actors, poorly edited, can appear not so great. I suspect this is similar with writing and editing our work. Less is more, most often. Cut out the non essentials for the best, most fluid performance.

When you don’t remember what happened, it was probably amazing

Writing, same thing. I keep hearing other writers report that they find themselves in a flow state or trance of some sort. This happens with acting as well, when truly in the moment, not thinking but being. Seems a universally sought after state. It takes some bravery to go there, but worth it.

A strong character “want” in a scene

What are they really saying that’s there? They may say I hate you, but mean I love you desperately and want you to look at me.

Embrace the messy

Some of my best acting happened when things went “messy” in a scene, as in, didn’t go as planned but we went with it anyway. It’s terribly disappointing when an actor stops themselves in the middle of a scene because of something they didn’t anticipate and chances are, they’re being the most raw and real in that moment. They stop themselves because their inner critic wants it to be over, has decided to cut off the creative flow. The whole room can feel what happened. Think about this with writing. Your entire universe of characters might be disappointed when we stop ourselves mid “mess”.

Keep passing the energy

In a scene, actors may strive to keep the energy going, as in not check out themselves. Between people, even if there is little or no action, there is always some kind of interaction. What is the subtext of their words and interaction? What are they really saying that they may be afraid to or are avoiding? That is often much more interesting, in both acting and writing.

Method writing

I don’t do this on purpose, but I found mention of it in a few places. Sounds interesting.

Take an acting or improv class.

So great for getting out of your head and getting into play. And not taking your own work and life too seriously.

Acting coach tips

  1. “Don’t make it so f*king precious.”
  2. Stay focused on the other person gets you out of your head.

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About Jolyn Janis

Jolyn JanisJolyn Janis is an actress, producer and writer based in Austin Texas. She co-stars in the season finale of the hit series THE LEFTOVERS (HBO). Her work has landed her roles in numerous films and television shows including a lead role in the films FAR MARFA, VICKY & SAM (awarded at over 60 film festivals internationally), a supporting role in DOONBY, opposite John Schneider (Dukes of Hazzard, Smallville), supporting in HAPPY VOODOO (Tribeca) and guest star in the MY GENERATION on ABC (From the creator of FARGO). She will direct and star in an upcoming Krav Maga based action film, PASS.

She is currently writing her first novel, RAINASHA’S STORY, a fantasy adventure set in Atlantis.