Unlikely Influences: What Vincent H. O’Neil learned about writing from the theater

Unlikely Influences is a series of blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

Starting now, the series will run every second week.

This week’s installment is by Vincent H. O’Neil.

 What I Learned about Writing from Researching the Theater

by Vincent H. O’Neil (aka Henry V. O’Neil)


“Remember you’re not a writer—you’re a storyteller.”

I read that piece of advice several years ago, and it’s really helped me as a writer … I mean storyteller. Over the years I’ve heard many useful comments like that one, but my ability to tell a compelling story really took a big leap when I began the research for my theater-themed murder mystery Death Troupe.

I have no background in the stage, and when I began this particular project I knew nothing about the theater. After a great deal of reading, starting with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amateur Theatricals and slowly working my way up to the memoirs of several noted directors, I gained enough understanding to write my book—and some unexpected extras.

It was fun to explore the creative process in a very different medium and learn about the techniques used by playwrights, actors, costumer designers, set designers, and directors. The best part, however, wasn’t gaining knowledge of the stage; it was the important storytelling fundamentals I picked up along the way. Here are four of them:

Ask “What’s my motivation?”

Although it sounds cliché, this is an important question—in both fiction and real life. Many actors spend a great deal of time digging down to a character’s most basic drives and needs, because it provides them with a fundamental understanding of what makes the character tick. Asking this question can yield all sorts of benefits for storytellers, from keeping a character consistent to helping predict what he or she might do in a given set of circumstances.

During my research, I learned that some actors will create a detailed backstory for a character that is never revealed to the audience. This exercise is designed to help the performer flesh out the role and gain a deeper insight into what propels that individual. Storytellers can do the same thing, creating personal histories for the characters in their works that may never be shared with the readers.

In case this all sounds a tad too linear, it’s never wrong to recognize that people often behave in erratic and unpredictable ways. This simple fact can provide greater depth and breadth to a story, through the exploration of everything from flawed motivations and misplaced loyalty to bad information and simple irrationality. The characters’ reactions to these stimuli can create tremendous dramatic tension and generate surprising plot twists.

Look beyond the first good answer

Early rehearsals of a stage play can involve a great deal of experimentation with the story and the characters. Directors and performers will frequently explore a wide range of reactions and emotions just to see how they might pay off on the stage, but every now and then this process gets short-circuited. While tinkering with different approaches in early rehearsals, sometimes a performer will present an interpretation that garners such approval that the actor will end the process of exploration right there. The success he or she experienced with that particular experiment is of course genuine, but stopping there can prevent the performer from considering an approach that is even better.

Brainstorming a story can lead to similar experiences, especially when an inspiration fits the nascent storyline or resolves a problem. While this is certainly a positive development, it can keep the storyteller from discovering other options. There are numerous techniques for continuing this exploration, such as giving a good line to a different character, switching a role from a “good guy” to a “bad guy”, and shifting the characters in important sequences. As with all brainstorming, there is no need to keep any of the new ideas generated by these exercises—so play around with them.

Let the costumes and sets tell part of the story

Visual cues are a useful tool for transmitting important information without stating it. On stage, costumes can be used to draw attention to a role or hide it among the other performers. In storytelling, everything from a character’s attire to his or her posture can tell the reader a lot: Does this individual care about how the world sees him or her? Is the character trying to create a certain impression? Is the character hiding something?

Stage sets likewise transmit information while also setting the mood. A brightly colored stage, bathed in light, creates a very different atmosphere from a set that is decorated with somber tones and little illumination. In storytelling, setting a sequence in a cemetery at midnight sets the reader up for a very different expectation than a coffee shop at mid-day. Including weather and temperature can also help to build a realistic setting that delivers on the objective of placing the reader in the middle of the action.

On a related note, identifying a character by a physical feature or some other attribute is sometimes more useful than providing a name. This can be especially helpful when the individual isn’t in the story much; instead of having to remember “Charlie” from several chapters back, it’s often easier to recall “Flop Hat” or “Cheek Scar” whom the main character disliked on sight many pages ago.

Bring the curtain down as soon after the climax as possible

“Always leave them laughing” is an old admonition from stage comedy, and it’s good advice. One famous stage director wrote that he tried to end every play right after the climactic moment. Although he acknowledged the requirement to tidy up some of the tale’s loose ends, his point is sound. On stage and in storytelling, the climax can be compared to the high note of a song—once it’s been hit, everything else after that is likely to suffer by comparison.

When telling your story, be careful not to drag things out after the climax even if it means leaving a few questions unanswered. It’s important to consider which issues can be safely left unresolved and which ones will drive the reader crazy, but ending the story shortly after the payoff is usually a good idea.

Vincent H. O’Neil (aka Henry V. O’Neil) won the St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for his debut mystery novel Murder in Exile: A Frank Cole Mystery in 2005. It was followed by three more books in the Frank Cole series (Reduced Circumstances, Exile Trust, and Contest of Wills) and the theater-themed murder mystery Death Troupe.

His Lovecraftian horror novel Interlands features his first female protagonist, the graduate student Angie Morse who is searching the woods around Providence, Rhode Island for a lost stone obelisk once worshiped by a colonial-era cult that perished at its feet.

His Sim War military science fiction series is published by Harper Collins under the name Henry V. O’Neil. The first book in the series, Glory Main, was released in 2014 and the sequel, Orphan Brigade, was published in early 2015. The third book in the series, Dire Steps, is scheduled for release in August, 2015.

His website is www.vincenthoneil.com