When I was (much much) younger, I took some stage acting classes. I was never very good at it, but it taught me a lot. And apparently it’s still teaching me.
This morning I was writing a scene for my new novel project where a minor antagonist is traveling by rail from Chicago to Detroit. The scene was playing out to be as boring as I imagine the real trip to be. I wondered what I could do to amp it up, give it some tension, and (just as importantly) give it a reason to be included in the book.
I remembered something from those acting classes 25 years ago. I believe my tutor called it “motivation”, though I never understood the reason for the name. The concept was simple: if an actor is just standing on a stage delivering lines, it’s boring, it actually makes the actor nervous, and it misses an opportunity to dazzle the audience. It’s also not realistic. We were given lines and scenes to act out and given a variety of props on the “stage”. We were to use these any way we wanted to while delivering the lines we’d memorised. The difference was astounding. There was something about having an object in your hands that enabled you to flesh out your character more (the way you studied the dirty mark on the coffee mug while talking about romance might communicate to the audience that you’re a pedant), to channel your energy and even to enhance your delivery of the line (ie., give you something to do with your nonverbal communication).
I used it with the scene. I introduced two objects he had with him in his travel bag: a novel and an old photo album. Having him engage with the two things enabled me to paint a little back story with the character without just information dumping. The album enabled him to think about why he was on his dark mission, what it meant to him, the choices he had to do it or give up, his doubts, his grief, etc etc. The novel enabled me to show a little about his interests as a human being (big picture, past life) AND his inability to think about anything but his mission these days (he couldn’t concentrate on it).
Writing prompt: have your point-of-view character toy with or utilise an object. See what it does to them and to the scene.