What an Actor Wants You to Know About Your Novel — a guest post from Art Holcomb

Hi… it’s Art here. It’s my honor to be filling in for Larry here as he finishes up working on new training videos and other materials for you, his StoryFix family of writers. He’ll be back very soon.

In the meantime, I want to tell you a story about the unexpected power of your characters.

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Studio from Art

Years ago, I was on the lot at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood for a story pitch session.  And, as I was early, I decided to grab lunch at the commissary.

Now, the commissary was one of my favorite places in the world because I never knew whom I might see – actors and actresses, directors and studio execs.

For a young writer like me, this was like having all of Hollywood in one place.

I got my lunch and found a place at a table with a veteran actor (we’ll call him Bob) and a studio executive named David, both of whom I knew from my time pitching to Star Trek.  As we ate, we talked about the business and politics and the world. Being a bit bold, I asked a question that had bothered me for some time.

“Bob,” I said, “I train writers – both screenwriters and novelists – and I’ve always wanted to know something. If you don’t mind my asking, what are your absolute favorite roles to play? The ones that absolutely draw you doing a particular script?”

It seemed to me to be the obvious question. Almost every novelist and certainly every screenwriter I had ever met had a burning desire to see their story turned into a movie and to hear their words spoken on the big screen – I know it had been a turning point in my own career. So, if I knew this, I could improve both my own work and the work of my students.

But the real question here was – how does one write a role that an actor really wants to play?

Bob thought about it a bit and said, “I guess I have three types of roles that make me want to do a picture.” He smiled and said, “And so, in the tradition of building suspense, I’ll give them to you in reverse order.”

And what he said next really surprised me.

“My Number Three choice would always be to play – The Hero.”

“Really”, I said. “Number Three?”

“Absolutely!” he said through a mouth full of salad. “In a well-written piece, the hero is the most powerful role. He or she should get all the great lines and the powerful scenes and gets most of the publicity. A movie is made up of perhaps sixty separate two- minute scenes, and it was Jack Nicholson who once said that he would consider playing any role that had for him three good scenes and one great one. Plus, when you’re playing the hero, the story is all about your journey, the focus is on you, so what’s not to like?  If it’s good enough for Jack . . .”

Made sense, I thought.

“So, yeah, absolutely,” Bob said. “But, really, the Hero’s not even the best role.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s Number Two?”

“The second best role to play is always – The Villain.  The villain is where so much of the power and personality comes through. The range for most heroes is limited because of what they must stand for, but a villain can run the gamut. If for no other reason than the way the audience comes to hate a great villain, most great movies succeed or fail based on the power of the villain and, besides, they are always such a gas to play.”

By this time, I was a bit lost. Besides the hero and the villains, what other great roles were left?

Bob leaned back in his chair and smile wistfully. “But the absolute best role is the one that we are all trained to play, they one that gives us all a chance to show the audience exactly what we can do as actors . . .”

He paused for effect.

“I will always be attracted – first and foremost – to play any character who really suffers in the story.”

“Why?”

“Most people would say that we come to the movies or read a story or watch a play to enjoy the plot of the story. And we have always believed that plot is what draws us to the film. But the plot, from an actor’s standpoint, is only there to show the world the nature and range of human emotion through the actor’s art. Great stories, whether in films, television, or novels, are first and foremost about the truth of the human struggle.”

“I agree,” David the studio executive said. “Consider any film that you’ve really loved.  If you think about it, you were really drawn to the emotions that the characters portrayed – the pain, sorrow, anguish, elation and sheer love and happiness that you were able to connect with. It’s through that emotion that the audience bonds with that actor. Well-written pieces which always show that kind of human drama – the length and breadth of human emotion – and, it’s what makes the story a hit or a flop. From a pure craft standpoint, I would much rather play a powerful role is smaller film than the lead in a blockbuster. Fame, as wonderful as it can be, is not why most of us became actors. Humans, playing roles where the human heart stands in real conflict with itself, where pain and suffering can be shown honestly, makes that role – and that actor – unforgettable.”

I was beginning to see Bob’s craft – and my own work – in a new light.

Bob stood and gathered his belonging. And the worst part,” he said as he got ready to leave, “is that there are VERY FEW of those roles that come an actor’s way in his or her lifetime. And since the majority of movies are adaptation of novels and other materials these days, the problem lies as much with the sort of characters in novels today as they are in screenplays.

And, with that, Bob was gone, disappearing into the rush of people hurrying to get their lunch before the commissary closed for the day.

David said, “I love that guy,” and we sat silent for a while as I considered it all.

Writing for emotional impact was something I taught but had never considered from Bob’s position. Stories are, in the end, emotion delivery systems. We all come to the movies and to novels to be taken out of ourselves, to be made to feel things that we might not feel in our own lives. So the vehicle for these feelings had to be based in universally relatable emotions. We watch films and read novels for the same reason that our ancestors sat around the fire and talked about that day’s hunt. Stories were created by the elders of the village to teach the young people of the village about what their lives would be like and how to cope with the challenges ahead. All good stories invoke real emotions in the audience, and it’s that emotion that binds the stories to us and us to the stories.

Novelist or screenwriter, if a writer cannot write with emotional impact, s/he will never really reach the audience.

It was something I’d never forget.

I turned back to David as he was finishing his lunch.

“So when’s your pitch?” he asked.

“In about an hour.”

“I’ve got some time,” he said as he got up to leave.  “Walk with me back to my office. Bob really only gave you part of the story.”

And so, fascinated (and not believing my luck), I followed him out.

NEXT TIME ON STORYFIX: What Hollywood wants you to know about your next novel.

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A special offer to STORYFIX readers: We have a new slate of seminars in 2017.  We’ll be teaching you about How to Write for Emotional Impact as well as How to build your Writer’s Platform and Brand for ZERO DOLLARS . . . . PLUS news about our Summer Boot Camp that can get you up, writing, and possibly published within the next three months.

If you’re interested in these and any other of our courses and seminars, just drop me an email at aholcomb07@gmail.com, tell me you’re a StoryFix fan, and we’ll let you know about exclusive discounts we’ve created just for Larry’s loyal readers.

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Thanks for spending this time with me. Larry will be back soon.

So, until next time – Keep Writing!

Art

7 Comments

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7 Responses to What an Actor Wants You to Know About Your Novel — a guest post from Art Holcomb

  1. Awesome. Loved the story, and totally agree about emotional impact. Without it the writing seems flat.

  2. Art, fantastic article! I never thought about the suffering of a character before since it’s usually the lead / hero who suffers, but the way you put it, those roles are unforgettable. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. JC Martell

    I became a writer because of Alan Rickman,and my book will have a special dedication to him. I watched him in Sense & Sensibility and was awed at his amazing variety of facial expressions in single one-minute scenes. Rickman is a perfect example of a villain becoming the most memorable character. I also learned from his interviews: He stressed the importance of the role of the audience – that you had to leave enough room for them to use their own imagination – that it was always a partnership.

    Underrated, overlooked, and gone way too soon – oh, the character roles he still had in him.

  4. Thank you, Art. Thank YOU! I have long felt that plot is, just as you defined it, a catalyst for character portrayal. But I never thought of the idea of making their roles something that an actor would like to portray. One of the most powerful “huh, how about that?” moments I’ve had in a while. That really puts a big fat spotlight on the character issue. Is this character doing something, feeling something, enduring something, that an actor would care to take the time to learn and understand and portray? What a great litmus. And what a monumental challenge.

  5. MikeR

    “Having dutifully (and, appreciatively …) read this,” I would =NOW= like to “throw into the mixture” … This Idea:

    What if “any character who really suffers in the story” might, sometimes … (and, maybe, BY DESIGN(!)) … be … NEITHER ‘the hero,’ NOR ‘the villain?’

    Indeed: “What about ‘me?'”

    “‘Me’ being “the person, NEITHER Hero NOR Villain,” who “really suffers(!)” from (the misfortune of having been proximate to …) their conflict?”

    Might, in fact(!), “‘me'” prove to be the very character … “yea, OMITTED(!!) in your story-plan” … with which your actual Gentle Reader™ might identify most-strongly?

    “Think outside the box,” Gentle Authors! “How would you ACTUALLY react to ‘your screenplay,’ if you ACTUALLY held a bag of popcorn in your hands?

    • Don’t think in terms of “hero” and “villain” at the very beginning of a story. A story should be about the most interesting person you can construct and we can leave the labels such as hero and villains to the side for the moment. Write the best character you can – the most human and most authentic and “true” character you can create, Tell that story and you’ll never go wrong. Thanks for posting! -Art

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