How to Act Well with Bad Writing | Proofing your Performance

How to Act Well with Bad Writing

Written by on | Acting Tips

A new script falling into your hands is one of the most exciting parts of the acting journey. It represents a new start—whether it be an audition side, a theatre piece, or a full 90 page feature film. However, the excitement can turn to dread when you realise: “This bad script is bad and is going to make me look bad!” Bad writing is the worst. And, as people who spend half their lives reading scripts from all directions, it eventually comes for us all.

If you are reading

This is even more stressful when it is an audition side, and the poorly written script is all you have to go off to audition for the part. These are valid concerns, and if you are in a place within your career that you can turn down something, then turn down the script. However I would argue that we are actors, and that we have a job to do. So let’s take “bad scripts” on as a challenge, and find out how to act well when the writing is bad.

What Is Bad Writing?

Before we dive in, we may be able to solve this problem from the very start by changing our perspective. Ask yourself why you think it is a bad script: is the writing itself poor, or is it a different style than you’re used to? Maybe it’s a genre you’re less familiar with, or it makes unconventional choices? Like all crafts of the artistic kind, the quality of writing is in the eye of the viewer. That said … sometimes bad writing is exactly that. There are a few clear indicators, such as:

  • Derivative or clichéd plot or characters. “I’m a cop with a dark past, and the President won’t save himself!”
  • Blandness. “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
  • Overly repetitive phrases. “Why, Linda? Why? Won’t you ever tell me why? Linda?!”
  • Unnatural randomness for its own sake. “Bazinga!”
  • Exposition. “Just because I’m fresh out of the academy doesn’t mean I can’t tell a bad guy when I see one.”
  • When a character narrates what they’re clearly doing. “Yep. That’s me.”
  • Overly preachy (even about good things.) “I knew it: terrorists never recycle…”
  • Pointless monologues. “To be, or not to be…” (Sorry Bill.)

Let’s stick with Hamlet for a moment: the speech in question, famous though it may be, actually contributes nothing to the plot of the show. What it does do, however, is give us insight into the indecisiveness of Hamlet, and how his mental health may be in decline.

So even if you identify any of the above sins, do be sure that a character is not overly preachy because that’s who they are. If it’s a logical choice that fits with the world, then there may be more to the writing than you thought. At the very least, practice some script analysis and hope for the best.

Can you Act Well With Bad Writing?

Of course you can! It’s just more of a challenge, is all. If you don’t find the lines you are reading agreeable, you still have the chance to make them feel real by way of your own skills. Remember Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels? Laughable dialogue, and yet she still knocked it out of the park! How about those final Game of Thrones episodes? Awful plotting, solid-as-ever cast.

How did these actors manage to pull off solid performances despite the challenge of bad writing? They made the most of what they had, and used their acting expertise to save the day. Judging the script is not going to help you nail the part (although it might make you feel better for a while.) You may as well take your focus and shift it to something more constructive and helpful.

How to Make the Most from What you Have

Words are just a tool. They are used to express meaning, to communicate feelings and ideas. But you, as an actor, are also used as a tool. You express meaning, communicate feelings and ideas. See beyond the words and dive deeper into the meaning.

If there’s no saving the writing, no reframing your reading or opinion and your mind is made up: pretend. Pretend that the writing makes sense, and bring meaning to those lines. Ask yourself why the characters talk or act in that manner. Don’t create anything too extreme or left-of-field, but give meaning to the oddness, the clunkiness. At the very least, you’ll be able to do your job.

Everything that the written character lacks, you will have to bring to the character yourself. This is crucial when there is no clearly defined objective in the script. The good news is that the answer is something all actors should be familiar with anyway: the basics.

The Basics For Overcoming Bad Writing

We have a plethora of articles that cover this intensive topic. I would recommend reading through the acting tips, and how-to guides from the technical to the personal. If anything, working with a bad script will give you a chance to improve your own technical prowess!

Action and Objective

If there is no clear defined purpose or objective in the scene, create one, believe it, then bring it to the table. All characters want something, and from their scene partners (else they wouldn’t be in the room together.) While the objective may be obscured, the actions are yours to play with: how does your character try to achieve their goal?

“Why?”

One of the oldest, most reliable tools in the box. If there is something specific that you find odd for your character to say or do, try and assume that the writer wrote this for a reason (even if they haven’t). Maybe they are acting too reserved when you think they should be losing it, or perhaps they are going nuts when just a moment ago they were having a calm conversation. Ask yourself why this is. If the writing is truly bad, you will have to create a sound reason that will justify the poorly written character.

Listen

The more interested you are in your scene partner, the more interesting you are to the audience. Even if your own lines are bad, if you at least listen intently to you scene partner you allow yourself to open up to interesting, natural reactions.

Moment Before

Know where your character has come from before the scene in question. This will give you justification as to why your character is saying whatever you think is bad writing. For example: your character’s dialogue is just one word answers. Not great. But if the moment before is that their mum just died, this would explain the character’s shortness and then you can act appropriately.

Act Natural

A character who is reacting normally to a situation, by definition, can not over-act. Follow the link to a whole other article on this point. Over-acting is a fairly common reaction to bad writing, as the actor feels they have to compensate for what the words fail to convey.

Scene Analysis

While we’ve covered the need for close script analysis already in this article, it never hurts to go back and check again. Maybe there is something you have missed or not realised? A thorough script analysis and line breakdown will help you find bad writing solutions.

Collaborate with the Director

Unless you are in an acting class, or an audition, you will work with a director to make the scene come to life. Don’t outwardly say that you think the writing is bad (that’s a sure fire way to make enemies), but explain that you don’t understand certain parts of the script or why your character says some out of sort lines.

Appeal to the Writer

Finally, if the writer is alive (statistically most writers for performance is dead, which is a creepy fun fact) see if you can talk to them. Don’t tell them their script is terrible—even though we have a whole article on exactly that—ask them questions. If you’re lucky, your questions may even prompt some rewrites!

Working through these basics should get you more comfortable with bad writing. A good actor (that’s you) has the ability to make bad dialogue feel natural. The more over the top the line is, the more you will have to dial it back. The more lifeless the line is, the more life you will have to bring to it so that it becomes alive with meaning. Find balance.

That’s All She Wrote

If you act long enough, your are bound to come across writing that is genuinely bad, or at the very least, writing that you believe is jarring and weird. You can’t always change what has been written, but you can change your attitude, perspective, and character so that what has been written can come to life. I once had an acting coach give the class bad and vague scripts on purpose so that it would push us to come up with creative ways to depict the scene.

Instead of seeing bad writing as bad luck, treat it like an acting exercise that will challenge you to hone your craft. Challenges like these that separate the novice, the good and the great actor. You can be the latter if you so choose to put your judgements aside and focus on your craft, and what you can bring the table that will breath new life into the script. Be so good that the audience, casting director or whoever it is, can’t even tell that the writing is bad.

About the Author

Samuel Hollis

Samuel Hollis is a Brisbane based actor, writer, and pop culture enthusiast. He grew up with a love for storytelling which fuels his passion for acting and writing. His works span from theatre to screen, and from script writing to mediocre poetry. He believes that the key to improving your craft is to improve the greatest tool that you own; yourself. When Sam's not spinning up a riveting story or typing until his fingers fall off, he's rolling dice with his Dungeons & Dragons group, playing the sax, or taking long walks at sunset.

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