A Writer’s Shortcut to Writing for Relationships: Tips from an Actor

What do a writer and an actor have in common? Perhaps more than you think. The work of a writer often parallels the experience of an actor, requiring them to view a scene through the mind of a character. No matter if it is a script or a manuscript, the majority of scenes are made up of one or more characters trying to get something from the people he or she is interacting with. This is called a “scene goal.”

In reality, we all have similar goals but we also have a history with the person we need the goal from; it is often a long, complex history with mixed emotions and memories of past events. But writers and actors are only portraying a part of a character’s life. As an actor, you may be working with another actor that you barely know and have no shared history. As a writer, you may be drafting a scene with two characters whose intertwining backstories you have not explored in depth. So how do you create the chemistry needed to give the characters realistic reactions — especially in a scene that should portray the complex emotions of a pre-existing history but doesn’t?

A Writer’s Shortcut to Relationships

In the “Power of the Actor” Ivana Chubbuck teaches actors a technique to give realistic performances by applying portions of the actor’s relationships and current struggles to infuse emotions into their characters in a more refined version of method-acting. Writers can modify the Chubbock Technique to create their own version of “method-writing” — even if they never actually act. One acting technique a writer can borrow and develop is by temporarily working with a substitution. Substitution is one tool you can use to emotionally charge a scene with realistic and complex emotion.

 What is a substitution?

 Chubbuck defines the process of substitution as “Endowing the other actor in the scene with characteristics of a person from your real life who best represents the need expressed in your scene objective.” By adopting this technique as a writer, you can use an existing relationship in your own life to infuse your character’s scene with a similar emotional experience, complete with subtleties of a shared history, emotional ties, and subconscious influences. This allows you to write the scene from a deeper frame of reference that can infuse your character with emotions and reactions drawn from your own experience.

Finding Your Scene Goal

To understand who you can use as your substitute, you need to define your character’s goal in the scene and what he or she hopes to gain from the other character. An easy way to find what he is trying to get from the other character is to fill in the sentence, “I want you to…”

Goals can be emotional: “I want you to choose me.” 

They can be tangible: “I want you to give me a refund.”

Decide which goal your character is most interested in obtaining and (hopefully) has high stakes if he doesn’t. The more he needs his goal, the more charged the scene becomes.

How to Choose the Right Substitute

When you choose a substitute, be sure you are working from an emotional standpoint instead of the literal storyline. If the character is trying to get a wandering boyfriend to love her, you should not use a spouse who is your best supporter as a substitute. But you could use the best friend who has suddenly quit answering your calls. Always choose someone who reflects the need; if possible, use people whose relationship is current and emotionally charged or people whose influence is still not resolved. Who, as the author, are you asking to fulfill a similar need? If your character is trying to prove himself to a superior, you might consider a boss from whom you need to ask about a raise or a friend you’re always trying to impress. If a character is trying to keep someone from leaving them, you could use your father who left you when you were a child. Sometimes the relationship is obvious, and sometimes you may find the necessary qualities in a relationship you would not first suspect. For this reason, you’ll want to come up with multiple possibilities and try them all to see which one clicks.

 Trying Out Your Substitutes

Actors will apply a substitute to their fellow actor by choosing a similar feature that the actor shares with their substitute. They will imagine the substitute over the actor until they feel the essence of the substitute when they look at the actor. With practice, this can take less than a minute, but because they have attached their emotions and history with the real person to the actor, they can now consciously and subconsciously respond at a much deeper level. As a writer, you do NOT want to use a real person as the character simply by dropping them into the storyline and hashing out the details of your current issues. However, while you are working with scenes in the drafting phase, you can substitute to create a similar, but not identical, emotional attachment. Modifying this exercise for writers allows more options since we are freed from the constraints of the actor. Remember this is mental work.

How to Apply Your Substitute to Your Writing

There are two ways that you can approach this exercise as a writer. Play around with these ideas and see which way works the best for you. Different writers work with different tools, so try this technique and see if it is a good fit for the way that you think. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, throw it out.

1. Review your current author-substitute scenario that is causing you to fight for the same goal as your character. Allow yourself to imagine yourself interacting with the person in a similar scenario to your character’s plot. Be careful not to get caught up in mental rants. You’re looking for the emotion; when you feel it, turn off your mental scenario and begin to work on the storyline in your draft, infusing your feelings into the character now living out his scene. Remember, when your character wins, you are telling your subconscious that you can also come out on top of your own life’s scenario.

2. Mentally rehearse the scenario using your character to approach your real-life stand-in. Have your character face down your substitution in either your real-life scenario or the book’s scenario. This does not have to be written down anywhere. Your goal is to infuse the emotional charge, risks, and reactions of a real scenario into your fictional character. When you feel their emotions and reactions, drop your substitute, and write your scene with the proper characters and storyline.

Writing Your Scene

   Now it’s time to fully immerse yourself into the fictional story, but now you will be in a realistic headspace to write. Modify this method however you need to get yourself into a similar emotional state as your character, facing a character who is withholding or bestowing a similar need. As you use your writing to allow your mind to work through its own solutions in the scene, you might find that you gain insight and resolution for your own life.


How to Use Substitution in Your Writing

Remember this is a technique writer can borrow from actors. It can be explored and modified to fit your individual needs and how you work. The goal is to use pre-existing relationships to give you a short-hand reference for subtle, realistic reactions you may find in a real-world character, creating realism in your fictional world. Don’t get caught up reliving your current problem and don’t use a problem that will be so triggering that it will distract or damage you. Writing is therapy but it shouldn’t send you to therapy!

Using substitutions is a good tool to emotionally charge a scene and create a sense of history in the interactions of two characters. You can use a substitute when you first define characters and let the subtle emotions and history play into the developing storyline, or pull this technique out for a specific scene that you feel stuck on or want to vamp up the emotional punch. By writing in this manner, you are climbing down from your role as an impassive author to get in the trenches and experience your character’s battles. Together, you can both win your goals.

Stay Tuned for How to Apply Substitution to Your Writing