Acting on the Fictional Stage: The Dramatic Method in Fiction

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One of Stanislavski’s major contributions to acting theory was the concept not of “appearing” to be a character, but of “being” that character. In that regard, writing a short story or a novel may be even harder than acting, because in order to pull it off, you don't have to play just one role, you have to play all of them.

This might be why beginning writers often populate their stories with as little as two, and sometimes just one, lonely character, eating her fruit-loops in an apartment she never leaves. Writers are a one-man (or woman) show—we’re like John Leguizamo playing the roles of his entire family on stage, with no props, in front of a rowdy New York audience. In so many words, we have to “be” all of our characters.

(Warning: The following segment will introduce a concept, contain three quotes and up to, but not exceeding, two Russian names and one Spanish.)

Stanislavski based his principal of “being” on Lev Micloaeviche Tolstoi’s notion that,

Art is based on the fact that one man, hearing or seeing another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the same feeling as the person expressing it.

Or, as Madriaga put it,

Art is a bridge of matter between spirit and spirit.

That “expression of feeling” or “bridge of matter” is built by character-action. Remember that in Drama, and so in fiction, every character action must bear meaning. Stanislavski says that,

In every physical action […] there is concealed some inner action, some feelings. This is how the two levels of life in a part are created, the inner and the outer. They are intertwined.

It is only by intertwining the two levels of life in a part that we achieve round characters who seem to speak and move of their own volition, and where these two levels of life intertwine is called the Objective Correlative.

The Objective Correlative

T.S. Eliot defined the Objective Correlative this way:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

On stage, if an actor experiences only internal feelings or only physical actions, then the performance is dead—the same can be said of the fictional stage.

Compare the following passages:

Passage 1.

He was angry. He resented her for their lack of social life. He wished he could leave but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything but wash the dishes and sulk.

Passage 2.

He ran the water in the sink, so hot it steamed. He dug his hands in, scalding them. His hands felt like the outer skins of artichokes, but he wouldn’t quit and twist the nozzle. The nozzle winked at him. He opened the cupboard and it slammed against the fridge. One, two, three—he clacked plate on top of plate in the cupboard. They were still wet, and squeaked off his fingers, but he went on stacking them anyway. When the phone rang, he called over a shoulder, “Don’t bother answering. It's not like we'd go.”

Passage 1 is dead because it lacks physical action, it lacks the Objective Correlative that stands in for the subtext—it is, in fact, nothing but subtext. While I don’t mean to imply that passage 2 is well-written, it is at least a stand in for an actor’s performance.

Fiction should never be the equivalent of an actor standing on a stage saying, I’m sad. It should be the equivalent of an actor performing acts that inform us he’s sad. But this isn’t just an elaborate red-herring to get us back to the old Show, Don’t Tell argument. There’s a method to this madness.

Stanislavski’s method solves the dilemma of the Objective Correlative for the actor, and now we’re going to see that his method is just as helpful for the writer. After all, don’t we share the same dilemma? The writer must, somehow, determine a character action that demonstrates the desired emotional subtext. In Jauss’s discussion of the dramatic point-of-view, he chooses this stellar example of the Objective Correlative—an excerpt from Hemingway’s "The Light of the World." Notice how Nick Adams, the narrator, reports only character-action and dialogue.

When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.

"Give me a beer," I said. He drew it, cut the top off with the spatula and then held the glass in his hand. I put the nickel on the wood and he slid the beer toward me.

"What's yours?" he said to Tom.
"Beer."
He drew that beer and cut it off and when
 he saw the money he pushed the beer across
 to Tom.
"What's the matter?" Tom asked.
The bartender didn't answer him. He just looked over our heads and said, "What's yours?" to a man who'd come in.

The subtext is explicit without being explicitly stated. That’s because Hemingway has chosen an Objective-Correlative that is realistic, subtle, and rooted in the character’s everyday behavior. I’m not the only one calling for writers to be more conscious of our characters’ actions. Jauss says elsewhere:

Action is eloquence. Depending on which scientific study you most believe, 65% to 90% of all communication in life is conveyed through body language, so it would stand to reason that fiction—at least the kind of fiction that attempts to replicate life—would have a similarly high proportion of body language. But even though body language is the principal way we experience and convey emotion in life, it is largely AWOL from our fiction. My best estimate is that body language accounts for less than a fourth—probably a good deal less—of the emotional communication in most contemporary fiction. Too many of us—myself included—neglect this all-important mode of communication. […] As the scholar Barbara Korte says in Body Language in Literature, body language consists of ‘movements and postures, facial expression, glances and eye contact, automatic reactions, [and] spatial and touching behavior.'

Stanislavki’s method solves the dilemma of the Objective Correletive by helping us “be” our characters and, by so being, understand how they would move in order to demonstrate the emotional movements happening inside their heads and hearts.

Principles of the Dramatic Method

By “being” our characters and understanding their everyday behavior, we achieve realistic character-actions that are jam-packed with subtext. Think of it this way—if subtext is two months’ worth of laundry, Objective Correlative is the overnight bag we’re trying to stuff it all into. Earlier, I lauded Hemingway for choosing a character-action that was realistic, subtle, and rooted in the character’s everyday behavior, and the most important of these traits, perhaps the only one you need to walk away thinking about, is “everyday behavior”.

But when we're writing a story or novel, when we've got a plot to push our characters through or we've got an emotional cloud looming over their head, it's tough to remember: what makes up everyday behavior? Child psychologist Jean Piaget said that everyday behavior is goal-directed.

In life I act out of human necessity. I drink because I am thirsty.

As writers, we may drink because we want to get drunk, but that still proves the point, doesn’t it?   

While, as Tolstoi says,

Spontaneous thoughts and feelings and reactions to other people’s thoughts and feelings are not art

Stanislavki’s method starts us at the decisions we’d make as human beings before we try to make decisions as artists. Character actions are what Stanislavski called “Prepared Spontanaeity”. They look like life, they sound like life, they smell like life, but they’re strategically fabricated to help the reader engage in the story. The method is based on the following principles.

  • I can do very little creatively until I have an idea of (a) What happens in the story (b) What the dramatic situations are (c) the  demands these circumstances would make on the character.
  • By deciding what physical actions that (I), my character, would take, and believing that those actions are true, “I release my creative energies and my natural emotional responses, organically, without forcing, without falling into familiar clichés.”

Sometimes I’m an outliner, but most of the time I’m not. What I strive to be is a re-writer. Which means that this method cannot stunt my discovery of, or the growth of, my story—largely because I’m past all that. I’m crafting now.         

Exercises:

  • Break your scene down into the before time/after time.

            - What’s happened before the scene opened? What will happen when it’s over?

  • Answer for each character the here, today, and now.

            - Whence: Where have I just come from?

            - Where: Where am I?

            - What: What am I doing?

            - Why: Why am I doing it?

            - When: When is this happening? Time of day, month, and year?

            - Whither: Where am I going to next?

That's A Wrap

Somerset Maugham talked about the necessity of a fiction writer to have “a footlight sense”. Dramatist Harold Hayes said at Wagner College:                                                                                  

The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.

Well, the key word there is deeds. Without deeds, without actions, there can be no consequences and so there can be no drama. The dramatic method helps us to discover our characters’ actions and the physical consequences they’ll face. With the dramatic method, we’ll no longer write a character action without first considering that action, ensuring that it is a bridge of matter that our readers can cross right into our character’s spirit.

Chris Rosales

Column by Chris Rosales

Christopher David Rosales is the author of SILENCE THE BIRD, SILENCE THE KEEPER, which recently won the McNamara Grant and was short-listed for the Faulkner-Wisdom Award. Most recently his work is forthcoming in 5280: Denver's Magazine. Rosales is a Writer-In-Residence at Colorado Humanities Center for the Book, and a Professor at The University of Colorado at Boulder and Metro-State University, Denver. He is the Fiction Editor of SpringGun Press, and the Founding Instructor at The Boulder Writing Studio. Lindsey Clemons, at Larsen Pomada Literary Agency, represents his novels.

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Comments

Miranda Moth's picture
Miranda Moth from Guelph, Ontario, Canada is reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner July 17, 2012 - 11:32am

"Sometimes I’m an outliner, but most of the time I’m not. What I strive to be is a re-writer. Which means that this method cannot stunt my discovery of, or the growth of, my story—largely because I’m past all that. I’m crafting now." This is definitely now in my quote book. Thank you, amazing way to put this.

iBronco's picture
iBronco from New Jersey is reading White Noise July 17, 2012 - 11:34am

I really enjoyed reading this excellent article. It reminded me of something Craig Clevenger said about reading Imro: Improvisation and the Theater, how these kind of acting techniques crossover into the writer's fiction world. It's inspired me to take acting classes to enrich my own fiction writing. This article is spot on. 

FoxyLenz's picture
FoxyLenz from Shangri -L.I is reading Mists of Avalon July 17, 2012 - 3:15pm

I started off in theatre and acting. I can't help but live in my characters heads.  Doing so lets the characters grow organically, letting them write the story. Emotionally it can take a toll, especially with dark subject matter or characters who are grossly misaligned with me. 

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David July 17, 2012 - 5:13pm

Solid advice all the way. 

Glad I read it.

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables July 17, 2012 - 10:15pm

I like this. It reminds me of something Hamlet said to the players that fits to writing as well: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature." In the end, the most important part of telling a story is getting your audience to believe it's true. Very helpful insights!

Thomas Derry's picture
Thomas Derry from Bonanza, Colorado is reading Rand McNally World Atlas July 18, 2012 - 10:05am

Very informative article. I understand the "show, not tell" aspect, but I like to use plain, unadorned language. Is there a way to do that without having deadness creep in?

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading something a friend wrote July 18, 2012 - 7:52pm

Thank you for writing this article.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words July 19, 2012 - 5:35am

this article is a big help - many thanks.

Christopher David Rosales's picture
Christopher Dav... from Paramount, CA is reading "Canada" by Richard Ford October 11, 2013 - 10:17am

Thanks for the wonderful comments. I'm so happy this was helpful.