What Writers Can Learn From Stanislavski's Acting System
Updated: Apr 24
I worked in the theatre from ages five to 32, and during that time I learned a lot.
Like... a lot.
In the main, I acted and directed, but I also designed costumes and sets. I'll never forget the set I designed that was completely made of sails. Guess who ended up sewing all those sails?
I even worked backstage. Let me tell you, when you're up in the rafters, dealing with a seriously heavy lamp, it doesn't do much good for your fear of heights.
"Yes, yes, Stuart, you were in the theatre. Big deal. What does treading the boards/rafters have to do with writing?"
Okay, okay. Blimey, you're so impatient. So, working in the theatre, I had to learn how to inhabit a character, and I watched other actors do the same. Then, when I started writing and coaching, I brought all of that to my creative practice.
You might have heard the name Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski was a Russian theatre practitioner who developed a system actors follow to train, prepare, and rehearse. I studied Stanislavski's methods, and here's what I think you should take from his system.
Method of Physical Action
This technique requires the actor to use physical action as a means to better understand their character's objectives and reactions. For example, if the character is angry, the actor might stomp their foot, clench their fists, or huff out a breath of frustration to help them access the feeling in a tangible way.
For most writers, this is a given, but I see many manuscripts that lack this fundamental detail. Sometimes, it's only is a few places but occasionally throughout the entire work. This ties in to 'show, don't tell' where the reader wants to see the character stamping their foot rather than reading, 'he said, angrily'. Better still, show us the character's action and not speak at all. The reader is more than capable of understanding the character's emotion.
But you can do even more than that. Stomp your foot, pace your floor, feel your fingers dig into your palms as you clench your fists. Feel how faster your heart's beating? All of that can go into your manuscript.
Stanislavski had his students use their imaginations to help their characters come to life. He had them put themselves in the character’s shoes, and build a vivid environment in their minds to draw from. An example of this would be to imagine what the character’s home looks like, what furniture they have, and what scents are in the air.
And you should do that, too. A character is a product of so many things and how a character lives, and where they live, speaks volumes. Are their china teacups neatly stacked or do they have to fumble in a cupboard for the least chipped mug? What bedspread do they have? Is it clean? Are they the house-proud type, vacuuming every day and keeping things 'just so'?
What else can you imagine for a character? Yes, you can build a backstory, but how does that backstory show in ways other than what they say?
This technique involves the actor focusing on the senses to help them connect with their character’s history and emotions. For instance, an actor might close their eyes and recall the sound of their own grandmother’s voice or the smell of a childhood favourite treat.
What connections can you build with your character through your senses? What emotions do those senses evoke? What other memories do those emotions evoke? Follow their trail to improve your characters and your understanding of them.
This technique requires the actor to use their own emotional experiences to tap into the character’s feelings. An example of this could be the actor remembering how it felt to be embarrassed in a situation and using that to access the character’s feelings of shame in a scene.
This technique is particularly useful if you haven't experienced a feeling your character needs to have. For example, grief. As a writer, you may have never experienced grief, so how do you connect with that?
Via other emotions.
Let's break grief down into some of its component parts: sadness, regret and guilt, anger, a sense of loss. If you haven't experienced those things in life, you are truly blessed, but chances are, you have, and you can build your character a believable sense of grief from those parts.
This technique is based on the idea that physical actions can reveal emotional responses. Stanislavski had his students take note of the physicality of their characters, such as how they walk, how they stand, or how they use their hands. By analysing these details, the actor could gain a better understanding of their character’s emotions and motivations.
We walk differently when we're sad, speak differently when we're excited, brush our teeth differently—if at all—when we're depressed. Understanding physicality and how it shows character (and this is closely linked to the Method of Physical Action, albeit subtly different) feeds your ability to show and not tell.
Show the reader the way a character walks into a room. The reader will understand who that person is.
This technique requires the actor to analyse their character’s objectives in order to gain a better understanding of their motivations. Through this technique, the actor can learn why their character behaves the way they do and how their behaviours reflect the story’s overall theme.
I'd assume you'd know this. After all, you've created the character and thrust them into a scene, so you must know the character's objectives, right? Sadly, that's not always the case. Understanding, and I mean really understanding, a character's objectives and motivations - not only in the novel but also in the scene - is invaluable and should help shape the plot. If your characters are twisting themselves ( effectively coming out of character) to fulfil a plot's objective and not a character's objectives, you've got a problem. Go back and work on your character and understand how the scene and/or plot should change based on that new understanding.
This is a technique in which the actor looks beyond the dialogue to discover the hidden meanings. Through this technique, the actor can uncover the underlying themes and subplots of the character’s story. An example of this could be an actor reading between the lines of a conversation between two characters and discovering a secret friendship or rivalry.
For you, this could be a tricky analysis that comes as part of the editing phase. It often takes time away from the manuscript to do this, coming back and reading through fresh eyes, but it's not a skill that comes easily to most. Don't sweat it if you haven't built these muscles yet. Just keep working on them and perhaps talk it over with your beta readers.
Stanislavski believed that spontaneity is the key to creating an authentic performance. He encouraged his students to embrace the unknown and embrace the unexpected, as this allows the actor to be more in touch with their character and the story. An example of this could be an actor going off-script to add a few humorous lines that weren’t in the original script.
Tread softly, writer! I use the Inside Outline with my some of my book coaching clients, which allows for some spontaneity without chasing plot bunnies into the wilderness. It gives just enough structure to keep them on track and just enough space to let them play—like those off-the-cuff one-liners a character might come out with or a minor character who adds flavour.
But use that principle whatever outlining tool you use. Give yourself enough room to play but stay on script where it matters.
This technique requires the actor to actively analyse the character’s behaviour and motivations during the rehearsal process. An example of this could be the actor asking themselves why their character is behaving in a certain way or why they’re making certain decisions in the story.
Again, this is one for the editing phase, but it's also useful when you're planning. During your reads and rereads of either your Inside Outline or your manuscript, check that your character's staying on script. Look for deviation, then rein them back in where required.
Time and Place Analysis
This technique requires the actor to analyse the time and place of the story in order to better understand their character’s actions and reactions. An example of this could be an actor researching the time period in which their character lives and using this knowledge to gain insight into their character’s lifestyle and beliefs.
You might think this is one that only applies to historical fiction writers, but if you're writing a character from a different generation, country, race, religion, sexuality, or social class, time and place analysis applies to your characters, too. Research their lifestyles and beliefs and how they differ to yours.
PRO TIP: This exercise will inform many, if not all, of these other exercises.
Building the Character
This technique requires the actor to create a backstory and a personality for their character in order to better connect with them. Examples of things an actor might do to create a character would be to create a detailed biography, fill out personality questionnaires, or draw detailed sketches of their character’s looks and mannerisms.
This should be a given. Building a character isn't just reeling off height, weight, age, and hair colour. It's much much deeper than that. I won't go into the nuances here—you can look to my character-based blog posts for that—but they are many and varied.
You can take a lot from Stanislavski's system. By using it, you can create believable, engaging characters and vivid, detailed scenes that draw the reader in.
If you want to learn more about Stanislavski's system, there is a wealth of resources available, from books and articles to online courses and workshops. These resources can help you understand Stanislavski's system fully, then you can best address how to apply it to your own writing and create powerful, emotionally engaging works of literature.