Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

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Relationships have labels like friend, wife, mother, sister. But since labels are factual, they tell us nothing about the health of the relationship. Is a marriage amazingly romantic or painfully toxic? The plain old label married doesn’t tell us.

To clarify, we need to look at what’s going on at an emotional level. That is, what they want from each other, expect from one another, and whether these wants and expectations are satisfied. Roles provide a short hand for doing that.

Roles come out of stories and our culture. They are icons as lofty as knight in shining armour or ordinary as helpdesk customer service rep.

If I want my boyfriend to be my knight in shining armour, I want him to come to my rescue. If he wants me to be his princess, he wants me to be a girly girl who sits there looking pretty and swoons at his manliness. This relationship has a chance of working out because what we want from each other is complimentary. But it isn’t very interesting, is it?

But if I want him to be my cheerleader and root for my legal career while he wants me to be his doting mother, who packs his lunch for him every day and tucks him in at night, we might have problems.

Finding a single, strong role allows the actor or writer to clarify what the character wants and expects from the other person.

In preparing a scene, an actor will complete the phrase: “I want Johnny to be my….”

  • Seducer
  • Play mate
  • Mentor
  • Love of my life
  • Equal…

The more descriptive and specific the role, the more useful it is in figuring out the relationship for that situation. Which brings me to another point.

As situations change, so do our wants and expectations.

At home in the kitchen I want my boyfriend to be my sous chef. When I have an appointment I expect him to be my chauffeur. Out at dinner I want him to be my entertainer.

Each character in a scene wants something from every other character in that scene, which can get complicated if taken too far. If I’m working on a scene with more than two people, I’ll focus on the important relationships and only consider the others if I have to. My aim is to understand the relationship I’m writing about, not to fill out a bureaucratic form, right?

When you’ve got some options figured out, you’re ready to put them into a scene to see how the sparks fly. That’s where goals come in.

Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

The magical canvas of the imagination


I’ve heard some writers say that when they write, they use their words like a video camera. What they put on the page has to fit within the visual frame of a film screen or it doesn’t work.

Using this metaphor, they couldn’t merely write “Ted is angry,” because how can the camera show that? But if they said, “Ted’s cheeks became red and he bared his teeth like an angry dog,” that’d work.

I like to take this metaphor a little further and say:  The prose writer’s canvas is the imagination of the reader. 

Without a budget, and in just a few words, a writer can take the reader to the moon or Mars. We can plop them into a bubbling soup of molten lava at the heart of an erupting volcano, or put them up on a cloud couch in heaven looking down and sipping tea. And all while they’re reading on the bus to work!

What I like about this metaphor is how it nudges the writer towards creating an experience for the reader, rather than a lecture.

This metaphor is, in fact, a way to get yourself firmly rooted in your point of view, whether first, third or omniscient.

Now, I’m as guilty as any writer out there of falling in love with my own words. I think this happens when I’m writing from MY point of view.

But if I see the reader plopped inside the experience of the words, whether it’s first person, third or omniscient, I’m less likely to go all purple. It’s less about how brilliant I am, and more about the roller coaster ride I’m taking them on.

Another benefit of using this is it forces writers to show, not tell.

Here’s an example from a recent Guardian article by Joshua Williams on his anxiety. Notice how he takes you inside his anxiety attack:

“…there was no good reason to be covered in sweat. The train was steady; there was no good reason to be stumbling down the aisle, legs shaking. There was no need to feel faint. Or to be seeing through an ever-narrowing tunnel. Or to have a tingling in my arms. Or for my heart to be pounding through my rib cage. I wasn’t at all hungry; there was no good reason to be buying a ham and cheese sandwich. But I was, because I was having a panic attack and I didn’t know what else to do.”

In this paragraph, he shows us passage of time, transition from one place to another. We feel his sweat, see with his tunnel vision. We can feel the rock of the train, the trembles in his limbs. The desperate, confusion of his mind.

The canvas of the imagination is made of more than just 2 dimensions.

You don’t need special glasses, only words. 

Here, anything is possible.