Monday, July 6, 2009

3 Rules

This is an old DU lecture from now-nonexistent "Writers on Writing." Stay tuned for a sequel in which I parallel the Three Rules for Actors to warriorship. ~Jenn

Three Rules For Protagonists

Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury

Back in acting school, we learned a magic Three Rules that we were to adhere to whenever we performed a new character (which was often a couple times a week). No matter how big a role, the Three Rules for Actors worked to make a performance authentic, dynamic, and compelling.

In acting, when you play a mood, you dissolve instantly into sham. Mood spelled backwards is Doom for the actor.[1] In other words, if you “play sad” you will seem false and cheesy to an audience. If you play a verb, if you play an objective, you’re playing an action instead of an emotion.

Three Rules for Actors:
“What do I want?” (objective)
“What do I do to get what I want?” (tactics)
“What stands in my way?” (obstacles)

Actors ask these three questions of themselves as the character they’ve been assigned, and often will write verbs in the margins of their scripts (tactics = action words) to guide them along the scenes. Any story can be boiled down to this formula. A character does actions to get their objective. When one action doesn’t work, they’ll try another. And the audience will want to know what they’ll do next, and if they’ll end up achieving their objective. When the character either achieves their objective, or discovers it can’t be achieved, the story is over. A new objective is a new story.

These three rules, though taught to actors, I have found to be essential in the understanding of story structure. A writer can ask their protagonist these three questions and the narrative nearly writes itself. Ray Bradbury probably never heard the Actor’s Rules, but his story-writing instructions are a direct reiteration of the objective/tactics/obstacles formula:

Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story.[2]

This formula works for anything narrative—fiction, non-fiction, or (obviously) drama. Poetry is about image and sound, so it doesn’t go by the Actor’s Rules. But anything that has events, things happening, a central character (even the writer-as-narrator of a personal essay) has added dynamism and a clean plot if the Three Rules are kept in mind.

Image is from Five Funny Faces' Dr. Seuss performance at Skyline Vista Elementary, 2000. Pictured: Jesse, Jas, Jenn

[1] Uttered by many of my previous acting profs, at CU Boulder and a couple UNC seminars.
[2] From Zen in the Art of Writing


Brady Darnell said...

Sometimes if I'm not getting what I want from actors in a scene, I will have that say out loud what's "in their margins" before each line of dialogue in rehearsal. It focuses the performance.
I'm a firm believer that acting exercises have practical applications across lots of fields and that anyone who wants to be a writer should take an acting class.

Bonzuko said...

And vice-versa. I believe that actors should be well-read and articulate.

shobiz said...

Love this post. It reminds me of conversations we had long ago when we had our weekly writer's group (well, not really "group," since there was only the two of us). I still recall that second Bradbury quote, thanks to you, and I still use it as a motivator.

Brady Darnell said...

Definitely. Directors, too.

Bonzuko said...

@shobiz: I'm glad--I find Bradbury's book is a sure cure for Writer's Block.

@Brady: And directors. Absolutely. All theatre people should be. Designers too.