Asking Characters Questions


The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.  To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment, or that which is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it.  An actor can very easily set in his mind exactly how a scene should be played.  This is not the purpose of text analysis, nor is it desirable in terms of execution.  The difficulty of executing an action lies in dealing with that which is actually happening in the other person. You can’t execute your action in general; you must stay in tune with the responses you are receiving.  This requires a great deal of bravery due to the fact that you can never know exactly what is going to happen next.  You must learn to embrace the moment and act on it according to your objective.


Answer these questions for the other major character in your scene.  If you don’t know what the actual answer is, use your intuition and role playing ability and from what you do know project answers.

A. Who is the love in this person’s life?  Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with which he or she is involved.  Limit your answer to a single choice.

B. What is this person fighting for?  What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals.  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.  

C. What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?  

D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.  Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous (Hamlet has some hilarious lines).  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous.

E. What opposites exist in this person?  What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that need). 

F.  What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?  Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have?  What is it?

G. How does this person affect someone with whom he or she is interacting?  Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.

H. What is the source of this person’s importance?  Reputations, money, power, title?  Answer that for your subject.   

I. With what place does the person have a close association?  It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car.

J. What is intriguing about this person?  (When I think about my father, how similar we are and how different we are fascinate me.)

–Michael Shurtleff, Audition


 Before we do the fleshing out of these scenes, there’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them further out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and my fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality. The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  Find romance; it’s everybody’s secret dream.  Whenever you have two conflicting personality traits that cancel each other out, do both.  Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  It’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, and their doing something we didn’t expect is always surprising us.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.

–John Lehman




The scene:                  A man and a woman are discussing the future of                   their relationship.

Man’s objective:          He’s very upset because he fears that she wants to break up with him.

Woman’s obj:              She realizes that she no longer loves him.  However, she has some feelings for him, and she doesn’t want to hurt him.  As gently as possible she’s breaking up with him.


The scene:                  A mortgage banker has just informed an applicant that her request for a loan has been denied.

Applicant’s obj:            She’s fallen in love with a house that she desperately wants.  She’s trying to convince the banker to process the loan.

Banker’s objective:     This applicant’s credit report shows a history of delinquent payments, and she just can’t take a chance on her.


The scene:                  Two hosts of a party have just said good-bye to their last guest.  It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Player one obj:            This person’s exhausted and would like to go to bed now and leave the mess until tomorrow.

Player two obj:            This person is wide-awake and wants to clean up everything and recap the events of the evening.


Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings.  In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless.  Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film.  Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…

In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit.  If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas.  You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end.  The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.

That’s not how you do it in narrative.  Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units.  You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble.  But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph.  So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats.  Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.

–Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story


The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play.  To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment, or that which is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it.  An actor can very easily set in his mind exactly how a scene should be played.  This is not the purpose of text analysis, nor is it desirable in terms of execution.  The difficulty of executing an action lies in dealing with that which is actually happening in the other person. You can’t execute your action in general; you must stay in tune with the responses you are receiving.  This requires a great deal of bravery due to the fact that you can never know exactly what is going to happen next.  You must learn to embrace the moment and act on it according to your objective.


To act means to do, so you must always have something specific to do onstage or you will immediately stop acting.  This is why physical action is so very important for the actor.  Simply defined an action is the physical pursuance of a specific goal.  Physical action is the main building block of an actor’s technique because it is the one thing that  the actor can consistently do onstage.   

1.         An action must be physically capable of being done.

For example, “pleading for help” is something you can begin to do immediately.  Everyone knows how to do it.  On the other hand, “pursuing the American dream” is not something you can pick up and do at a moment’s notice.

 2.         An action should be fun to do.

By fun we don’t mean something that makes you laugh, but something that is truly compelling to you.  This includes things you might never actually do offstage, but that appeal to your sense of play.  The point is to find the action you want to do. 

 3.         An action must be specific.

            Stanislavsky said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.”  The specificity of an action

such as “extracting a crucial answer” will bring you to life much more than the vagueness of “finding out something.” 

4.         The test of an action must be in the other person.

An action is the physical pursuance of a specific objective, and that specific objective must have to do with the other person.  In other words, by looking at your partner, you should be able to tell how close you are to completing your action. 

5.         An action cannot be an errand.

An errand is an action that has no test in the other person.  “Delivering a message” is not a good action because you do not have to look at your partner to see if you have accomplished it.  Too quickly and easily accomplished, an errand is boring for you to perform and for the audience to watch.  The action must be something it is possible to fail at; you cannot fail at an errand. 

6.           An action should not presuppose any physical or emotional state.  You can’t artificially induce a physical or emotional state (e.g., hunger, anger, sorrow, drunkenness), because they are not within your control.  Any action requiring you to put yourself into a certain state before or during a scene will force you to act a lie.  “Making a jerk know how mad I am” is a bad action because you cannot do it unless you are angry.  A better action would be “putting a jerk in his place.” 

7.         An action cannot be manipulative.  This type of action gives rise to the attitude that “I can do whatever I want to you, but nothing you do is going to affect me.”  In other words, you make up your mind ahead of time how you are going to play the scene and allow nothing to sway you.  An action such as “making someone cry” is manipulative.  An action such as “forcing a friend to face facts” might very well make your  partner cry, but the crying is more likely to be the honest response to your carrying out your action, rather than the result of your manipulation. 

8.         The action must have a “cap.”  The cap is that specific thing you are looking for that will mean that you have succeeded at your action.  For example, “to get a friend’s forgiveness”  is an action with a cap.  You know when your partner has forgiven you by his behavior toward you. 


An “as if” helps the actor gain a fuller understanding of the action he/she has chosen for a given scene.  It also gives the actor a clear sense of the consequences of not completing his action–which is to say, it sets the stakes in the playing of the scene.  The way to achieve these things is not by investing in an emotional state, but by crating for yourself a tangible, personal stake in the action you have chosen.  The means of bringing the action home to you is the “as if.”  The “as if” is a memory device which is a way of sparking yourself to invest fully in the scene.


action:   to implore a loved one to give me another chance.

as if:       I’m persuading my fiancee not to break off our relationship after she discovered I had an affair while she was away. 

action:   to show an inferior who’s boss.

as if:         my new secretary started reeling off her rules to me the first day on the job and Ii told her she’d better follow my rules or she’d be looking for a new job.

 action:   to make amends for bad behavior.

as if:       I’m apologizing to my best friend’s parents for showing up roaring drunk at their twenty-fifty anniversary party and making a loud-mouthed ass of myself. 

The “as-if” is there to get you away from the fiction of the script so that you can find parallels directly accessible to you and thus easy to act on.  Once you have used the “as if” to personally invest in a given scene, the lines and attendant physical activities therein are simply tools to aid you in executing your action.

The great debate throughout the history of acting is whether the actor must feel what his or her character is ostensibly feeling at any given moment.  The bottom line is: What does it look like to the audience?  The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.  At a certain point the writer may require and actress to sob over the death of the lover of the character she is playing.  All that is necessary is that the audience believes you are upset.  The audience will not know hat you have said you are doing in your scene analysis.  You may be playing a scene in which your character is dealing with his girlfriend, but your “as if” has to do with your brother.  What the audience sees is someone with a need to get something from the other person in the scene, an it’s understanding of that need will be based on the elements of the play, since that is the only information it has to go on.  The audience comes to the theater set to believe the story.  The actor comes to the theater to help tell the story, not by tricking himself into believing things he knows aren’t true, but by applying the tools he has developed to create an illusion.

                                                                     –A Practical Handbook for the Actor

Notes Left Behind


By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999)

A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck.

Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.” I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window.

I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could understand it I would be in possession of something profound.


description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge) use of motion

introducing characters (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or action,

description or inner response that identifies the opposition

dialogue: summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden

                   dialogue (subtext)

                   Dialogue “do’s and don’ts


                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use  structure to shape the sequence of what is said                


                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken (no subtext)                       

 developing characters:  pick minimum characters to convey scene                

events trigger action, action leads to discovery


John Lehman pretending to be David Mamet

     The story may not be credible to someone who has gone blind but the subject is the realationship between the husband and wife and that dynamic seems true. In order for something to be dramatic there needs to be a tension between people in a scene that makes the audience wonder “Who is going to win, who is going to lose.” The characters (author) uses whatever they have to get their way. Tone of voice, body language, facial reaction. And readers hang on these elements as clues to the outcome.

     One of my favorite books for writers isn’t even directed to them. It is called “Handbook for Actors” by NYU students of the playwrite David Mamet. Now he has written numberous books about writing and about the theater, but this one by people he was teaching cuts to the chase in a way his other explanations don’t. The book lists some terms for creating drama on stage that I think work just as well on paper. Here they are. We will talk more about them and apply them to some examples in upcoming posts. But first read through the list and think about what these mean in terms of your own writing.


action:  The physical pursuance of a specific goal. 

analysis:  The process whereby the action of a scene is determined.  It is derived from  these three questions.

1.   What is the character literally doing?

2.   What is the objective of what the character is doing in the scene?

3. What is the action like to me?  It’s as if…

 as-if:  The answer to question 3 of the analysis. It is a simple projection that makes specific for you the action you have chosen in step 2 of the analysis; it is a device serving to bring the action to life for you.

beat:   A single unit of action.  A scene (chapter) may have one or more of these. 

beat change:  The point during a scene where a new action begins. It occurs when a new piece of information or an event takes place over which the character has no control and which by its very nature must change what the actor is doing. 

cap:   The event or condition indicating that an actor has succeeded in his action.

 character:   The illusion created by the words and given circumstances supplied by the writer and director combined with the actions and externals of the actor. 

given circumstances:   Any piece of information or activity written into the work or demanded by the director comprising the imaginary framework within which an action is performed. 

living in the moment: Reacting impulsively to what the other character(s) in a scene does, according to the dictates of your action. 

objective:  The single element that defines what the character is doing in a scene, without which the scene will not work. 

subtext:  What is going on underneath the text. For example, if on the day your husband ides, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of his death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is everyday. Nothing of the subtext is ever going to occur unless the actor puts it there. 

through-action (goal):   The single overriding action that encompasses all the actions an actor pursues from scene to scene, from the beginning of a play to the end.



Here are four quotes that I pretty much live by:


“That which hinders your task is your task.”       –Sanford Meisner 

“Literary art does not exist in books.  It’s locked up in them, yes.  But because of its unique nature, this art form which is shared by writers and their readers is actually experienced in the theater of the readers’ and writers’ imaginations.” 

                                      –Robert Bahr, Dramatic Technique in Fiction 

“Characterizations fail because they ignore, or simplify, the complexity of the human spirit.  I think you learn by self-examination.  Within you are the seeds, the possibilities, of all the people on the whole face of the earth…  In you are cruelty, rascality, perversion, and, I’ll add, the opposite sex.  And in you are nobility and goodness and regularity and all the virtues.  The one difference between your endowment and that of any of your fellows is one of degree.  Some of you won’t believe this, but I think it’s true.  The difference is only one of degree.  Man and woman are joined in the human spirit, and villain and hero, and the ugly and the beautiful.  So learning human nature is learning yourself.  The writing of a novel is self-exploration, self-discovery, self-realization…”

                                    –A.B. Guthrie

 “Go for broke.  Don’t do the scene like an exploratory operation: It is life-and-death surgery.”

                                 –Michael Shurtleff, Audition

What I want to do now is share somethings I have learned about writing from studying  acting techniques. But first let me give you two one-minute plays. 


The two actors are separated on stage.  The woman is dialing a telephone.  The other phone rings.  The man picks it up.

HE:      Hello?

SHE:   You louse!  Creep!  Son-of-a-bitch!  You break up with me over the machine!  Over the machine!  I wish I had a gun!  I wish I believed in the taking of human life!  I’m seeing you as a hamburger on my plate!  Chew, chew, chew!  I’m seeing you as a pair of shoes!   No, wait.  I didn’t man that.  It’s just that you made me so mad.  You really wounded me by not talking to me in person.

 HE:      I’m sorry.

SHE:    What? 

HE:      I’m sorry.  I treated you in a shabby way.  I should never have broken up with you over the phone. 

SHE:    You’ve never said you were sorry before. 

HE:      Things had ended and I treated the whole situation in a cowardly manner. 

SHE:    Right. 

HE:      I’m not worth the salt in your tears. 

SHE:    No.  You’re not. 

HE:      Forgive me.  It’s the only way we can both get on with our lives. 

SHE:    I forgive you. 

HE:      I’ll always love you. 

Both hang up their phones 

SHE:    Dammit.  I still love him. 

HE:  Now, who the hell was that?      



The setting is around back of the house. A man is standing next to a window ledge that is about shoulder high. On it is an imperious, tortoise-haired cat.

CAT:  What I want is obedient people!

MAN: Listen, Madeline, the bowl wasn’t empty. There already was food in it.

CAT:  When I come to this window I expect more than food. I want some attention.  Attention must be paid!

MAN: When you jump up on the window, I get up from…

CAT:  Didn’t you see that Tina Turner movie? Do you think Hillary Clinton has to knock on the outside of a restaurant window when she’s hungry?

MAN: Yes, but Tina Turner is a big entertainer; and Hillary Clinton ’s the first lady. And you…you’re just…

CAT:  I am just what? Why don’t you go ahead and say it? I am just…the Artist inResidence…

MAN: Artist in residence?

CAT: …bringing grace and beauty into your shabby lives.  And do you think Tina or Hillary would eat something called, Alley Cat?

MAN: It says, it’s,” just good food.”

CAT:  Would you eat “just good food” if it were called, Homeless People?

MAN: I guess not.

CAT:  You don’t know how bad it is do you? You’re living in a world of tripping, sprawling, snoring, peeing, pooping d-o-g-s.

MAN: I’ll try to be more attentive.

CAT:  Come when you’re called, damn it.

MAN: Yes, Madeline.

CAT:  And no new dog until you get rid of an old one.

MAN: Yes, I understand.

CAT:  And those overnight visitors—your children—taking all the good rooms while I’m out here in the cold. That’s got to stop too.


CAT: Let’s get this straight once and for all. Just what part of “meow” don’t you understand? 


The following was a submission to Rosebud. Read it and then let me ask you a question about it.

 From Venice, Late Summer by Vincent Zandri, Rosebud, Winter 1997

      “Feel this one,” my wife, Margo, tells me. Her voice is soft but insistent. I hear the movement of her hands on the table in this café, the rain steady and loud against the canopy above us, but gentle against the cobblestone pavement on the square. I hear glasses clinking, plates sliding across the small, metal tables. I hear the shuffle of forks and knives. I hear the steady murmur of voices, but I listen only to my wife.

     “Try harder,” she says.

     I cup my hands and lay them side beside, palms up, on the table. She touches my fingertips and I feel the tingle of her fingernails and the cold metal table against the back of my hands and knuckles.

     “Look at me,” she says.

     I begin to laugh. She tells me to keep my head straight, and it suddenly comes to me: my eyes are drifting again.

     “Here, Nick..” She takes hold of my hand with her warm, soft hand. She sets an object into my palm, presses it into the skin and folds my fingers around it like a fist. She takes her hand away. “What do you really feel?”

     What I touch is simple: a small metallic band and a jagged stone—Margo’s wedding ring.

     What I feel is not so simple. My wife of three years makes me feel like a child learning to speak, learning to walk. What I want to say is this: after six months of total blindness I can do better. I’ve made some progress. I mean, I remember the simple shape of a wedding band.

     “I’m ready,” I tell Margo. “Ready for something more difficult than wedding rings…”

Now when I called the author and told him we wanted to use this piece, he told me that would be fine but there was something I should know. He said he had read it to a critique group he belonged to and one person in the group was blind. That person said, It isn’t anlything like what you describe. If you were the editor/publisher would you go ahead and use the piece? Why or why not?

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Creative Non Fiction – Final Part

 Five Steps to Getting Published 

1.   Discover what you’re good at, what makes you unique.

  • Find an audience (your focus group).
  • Think about how you can expand upon it. 

2.   Do market research.  (How do magazines/publishers make their  money?)

  • Writer’s guides (Internet)
  • Bookstores
  • Advertising Rates & Data (demographics available at every library)
  • Publisher catalogs 

3.   Position your writing (in terms of audience) or yourself.           

  • Have an organized way of communicating this (do a spread sheet of who you are sending where)
  • Evaluate results and reward your success. 

A Few Extra Hints 

  1. Treat getting published as part of the creative process
  2. Look for back doors (get to know people)
  3. Go to readings and make contact
  4. Have a writing marketing partner
  5. Go public with your effort
  6. Help someone else get published

 Recommended Books 

  • How To Get Happily Published, Judith Appelbaum, HarperPereneal (1992)
  • The Self-Publishing Manual, Dan Poynter, Para Publishing (1996)
  • Guide To Literary Agents, Donya Dickerson, Writer’s Digest Books (1999)
  • Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Barbara Kuroff, Writer’s Digest (1999)
  • Be Your Own Literary Agent, Martin P. Levin, Ten Speed Press (1995)
  • How To Write A Book Proposal, Michael Larsen, Writer’s Digest (1985)

Dear Workshop Participant, 

I am pleased to offer you these additional products and services. 

  • A special discount on a two year subscription to Rosebud.  A one year  subscription costs $20, but if you call or return this letter you can receive two years (6 issues) for $30 and this includes Best of Rosebud. If you don’t already receive the fastest growing magazine of short stories, poetry, essays and art, here is your opportunity to do so for a special unadvertised price.  This offer is good for 30 days. 
  • I also provide individual critiques and one-on-one writing coaching.  I have helped writers of both fiction and non-fiction improve their work and increase their chances of publication. A recent client had five agents out of eleven request to see his book based on the query letter we fashioned together. 
  • A two-page critique of up to ten pages of your work (prose/or poetry)   costs $40. 
  • A detailed critique of three chapters (up to 50 pages) and query material you are sending to agents or publishers is $120. 
  • Review of a book length manuscript with chapter by chapter criticism,$350 to $1,200 depending upon length. 

Please call 1-800-786-5669. I will be glad to answer all your questions and, of course, there is no cost or obligation. My e-mail is

Please check for a complete listing of my books (which can be purchased through t he web site) and for samples of individual critiques I have done for others. I also offer free on-going writing workshop at this web site,

I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with you during this workshop.  I wish you continued success with your writing.


John Lehman

John Lehman