Writing A Death Means Feeling A Death

Cinema Theatre

Back when I was in college, I had a terrific acting professor.

Every so often in rehearsals, just to shake things up, he’d make us play a scene without the dialogue. It helped us more accurately get a handle on the emotional “beats” in the scene. For instance, a scene with dialogue might read something like this:

John: What are you holding there?

Mary: It’s a letter. From your mother.

John: Why is she writing me after all this time?

Mary: Your father’s dead. He’s being cremated, and the memorial service is Tuesday.

John:  I’m working on Tuesday. (Exits)

The actor in me realizes there are a lot of ways to play that scene. And sometimes, breaking it down to just the emotions and leaving out the words gives you a chance to take that character’s story in a different direction than the same-old, same-old. It can let you layer and build and tear down and explore.

You could take out the words, and have a scene like this: 

John: Bored and somewhat irritated

Mary: Anxious, doesn’t want to bother him

JohnReally irritated now

Mary: In a hurry to get it out and afraid of his reaction

John: Completely dismissive (Exits)

Or, you could have a scene like this:


Mary: Finding it hard to get the words out

John: Surprised and very wary

Mary: Empathetic – feeling incredibly sad for him

John: Stunned – needs to escape to deal with his grief (Exits)

I still use the get-rid-of-the-words trick when I’m writing sometimes. It helps a lot with the old “Show, don’t tell” thing. I was writing a death scene yesterday, and it seemed like I was an outsider, standing there describing how very sad this guy was, when there were a dozen ways to show how deeply he was grieving. His head laid on a still chest, his fists clenched in impotent rage…Once I took out the dialogue and made him act the scene, I found it a lot easier to put that dialogue back in and suddenly, I’ve got a grieving, angry man who’s all action.

Just a little tip that works for me, courtesy of the theatre degree that my parents told me would be useless.

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