Monthly Archives: March 2017

Learn to add drama to a story with Sol Stein’s Actors Studio method

There are no good Inside the Actor’s Stuido memes. However, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I came upon a curious discovery. Turns out that Actor’s Studio host and mild-mannered curmudgeon James Lipton spent his younger days working as a pimp in the Red Light District of Paris (well, “a procurer… an agent, so to speak”).


Hmm, probably shouldn’t lead a blog post with “James Lipton was a pimp.” Because what can I really say to top that. Well, I’ve come too far now.

I’ve long had an obsession with Lipton’s glacially paced interviews, so imagine my joy at spotting a chapter titled “The Actors Studio Method for Developing Drama in Plots” in venerated master of the craft Sol Stein’s book On Writing.


So here’s the deal. Back in the ‘50s, Stein – at the time a playwright-in-residence at the Actors Studio – attended a workshop led by Elia Kazan. He was partnered with screenwriter Rona Jaffe, with whom he was instructed to improvise a scene. Stein received whispered instructions. His character, Kazan said, was a school headmaster intent on expelling a troublemaker. Jaffe’s character was the child’s mother, intent on defending her son. Tempers flared in a dramatic improvised scene. Only afterwards did Stein discover what Kazan had whispered in Jaffe’s ear – that her son was well-behaved and had been falsely accused. The two characters had different scripts. As a result, understanding became impossible and conflict inevitable.


Side note: I tried this in a classroom once during a lesson on rhetoric. I paired up two students, each with secret note cards. One played a high school principle, the other a student who had been falsely accused of cheating. Same deal – different scripts. It failed miserably. My students did everything they possibly could to avoid conflict and negotiated peace within half a minute. Methinks they just wanted the part where they participated to end. Anyways…

We don’t want negotiated stalemates in stories. We want conflict. We want ALL CAPS YELLING (metaphor all caps, of course). How to ensure the sparks fly? Give your characters different scripts. Take a look at the following exchange from Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld (lol at masterpieces of literature having 3 stars on Amazon…). Two events had just transpired in the story: the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb and Bobby Thompson hit his famous game-winning home run to clinch the pennant.

“Did you see the paper, Father?”

“Please, we know each other too well. You’re required to call me Andy now. Yes, I stole a long look at someone’s Daily News. They’re calling it the Shot Heart Round the World.”

“How did we detect evidence of the blast, I wonder. We must have aircraft flying near their borders with instruments that measure radiation. Or well-placed agents perhaps.”

DeLillo’s characters are discussing the news with different scripts. One is referring to Thompson’s home run, the other to the nuclear test.

I employed a similar technique in my novel Infinity Point. In the following scene, actress Nikole Fink has been taken hostage at gunpoint. She steals away to a public restroom where she knocks a passerby unconscious, steals the woman’s cell phone and – panicked and confused as to how to contact the police in a foreign country – places a frantic call to her agent in New York. Meanwhile, Nikole’s agent has become fixated on clearing up Nikole’s recent scandal in the tabloids in which she had been photographed by paparazzi stealing evidence from a crime scene. Wally assumes this is what the call is about. They are operating with different scripts:

“You have to help me, Wally,” the voice spoke. Yes, it was her. “I… I didn’t mean to… Look, I did something bad and I need your help.”

You know, Wally thought, perhaps I am simply not cut out for this industry. I am a delicate man, a sophisticated man. I enjoy tea from Thailand. I own a respectable collection of vinyl records. James Bond I am not.

“Yes,” Wally said. “I know, Nikole. Do not worry. I am working on it.”

“You…? Wait. What?”

“I have hired a detective. He and I are negotiating as we speak. This man is the best in the business. Surely he will help.”

Nikole was quiet a moment.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know everything – the cave, the bodies, the hourglass, the Black Lotus, the body bag, the blogger’s photographs. At first I was concerned, but now with the detective’s help, we will settle matters. You needn’t worry.”

Wally tried to imagine the scene on the call’s opposite end. He pictured Nikole drowning in pills and wine, her apartment a war zone of filth.

“Everything is under control,” Wally insisted.

This builds tension because the reader wants Nikole rescued; however, the misunderstanding prevents progress on the front and only buries Nikole deeper in her situation.