Using Keywords in Your Acting | Practical Application: Keywords for Actors

Using Keywords in Your Acting

In reality, we usually choose our words (and the way we say them) deliberately, particularly in delicate or high stakes situations. As much care must be taken by the actor in attempting to understand the character’s intention, their choice of words, and the use of those words.

Early in our career as actors, our primary concerns rest with the main challenges of playing a character: remembering our lines, learning an accent, projecting our voice etc. As our skills develop, many tools appear to us which may increase the detail and sophistication of our performance. One of these tools to understand is the use of key or operative words. Key words, operative words, emphasis, stress or ‘power words’ are all phrases which refer to the same thing: the action of giving weight to a particular word (or words) in a line or phrase. These words are given particular attention by the actor for their importance to the character. Perhaps the word conveys their true meaning or intention. Perhaps the word is indicative of a deeper subtext. It is no simple task to identify a key word, proven by this skit from the Royal Shakespeare Company: ‘To Be Or Not To Be: Shakespeare Live’

Key words, what they are, how to identify them and how to use them effectively is a valuable skill for the actor to possess. It can help with the process of memorising our lines. It can help us diversify our performance and the way we speak those lines. It can help our with our analysis of the text, and our clarity of the meaning of the words spoken by our characters. Let’s dive in!

What Are Keywords?

So, keywords. What are they? 

Keywords are words which are emphasised by the actor for the importance they carry for the character. 

They do what they say on the label: they are ‘key’. The key to unlocking the scene or moment, or the key to unlocking a character or relationship. Key words are often most clear to us in cases where they are repeated several times by the character. They are clearly highlighting the fixation the character has with that word or idea:

My God, let alone a man, it’s better to be an ox, or just a horse, so long as it can work, than a young woman who wakes up at twelve o’clock, has her coffee in bed, and then spends two hours dressing…. Oh it’s awful! Sometimes when it’s hot, your thirst can be just as tiresome as my need for work. And if I don’t get up early in future and work, Ivan Romanovitch, then you may refuse me your friendship.

– Irena, Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov

NB: The words in bold in the text above are an offering of which words an actor might stress in this text. Irena’s primary concern is with work and its importance, perhaps she emphasises the words relating to the idea of work accordingly. 

Key words can be useful to us in many ways. They can offer us an insight into the meaning of a section of textthe subtext going on underneath the characteror the intention of the character themselves. To better understand what they are, let’s zoom out for a second and think about how key words exist in reality.

Keywords IRL (In Real Life)

Keywords and operative words are just acting theory based on something we each do every day of our lives. In the same way that ‘objectives’ are a theoretical concept used by actors to represent human beings’ constant need for something in particular, identifying key words is a method for achieving a greater sense of truth in a role. 

Picture a setting between two people. Based on the following sentence, we can imagine what their relationship might be:

“I just want to tell you that I love you”

Now, as words on a page, that’s a fairly simple sentence. Even for actors, that line wouldn’t be a challenge for us to remember or say, necessarily. But for human beings, this combination of words could be tremendously difficult for someone to say, and the way in which it is said tells us a lot about the speaker and the relationship at hand. The variables of how they say these words include their volume, their pace, momentum, clarity and emphasis. Let’s focus on emphasis and see how it carries meaning. The word in bold is the word being emphasised by the speaker:

“I just want to tell you that I love you”

‘Just’ is a curious word for the person to emphasise. Perhaps they have been stewing over this declaration of love for months, and the circumstances have finally allowed or forced them to confess their feelings.

“I just want to tell you that I love you”

Uh oh. Perhaps the person who is loved has many admirers? Is the speaker another lover entering the fray? Or is the speaker a family member uncomfortable with affection who has identified that they need to be clearer and more open with their loved ones about their feelings?

“I just want to tell you that I love you”

Perhaps the speaker feels a lot of fear about this declaration. Maybe they use the 7 words leading up to the word ‘love’ to muster the courage to say that one word. Maybe they are unsure of how the other person will respond and they don’t want to come on too strong?

You get the point. Emphasis carries meaning, and that meaning exposes much about people and their relationships. It’s important to note here that when I speak about emphasis, I do not necessarily mean strength or volume. Emphasis can take many forms, even de-emphasis, if we want to really confuse matters. Someone feeling shame might diminish the most important word to them because it is so difficult for them to say. This emphasis, used by human beings every day, is now translated by actors into the idea of ‘key words’ – the words which will unlock the true meaning of a character’s intention.


Lets delve back into the realm of fiction. We’ve spoken now about how emphasis affects meaning in everyday life, so let’s take a look about how key words influence meaning in text. This is a line from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:

“Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think.”

– John Proctor

See how there are many options for emphasis in this phrase, too. Some may be ‘more right’ in performance than others:

Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think
Lilac is the smell of nightfall, I think

Each of these line readings conveys a different meaning for John Proctor, and indicates to the audience what is most important to him and what lies beneath the surface of the words. Perhaps in this moment what is most important to him is to be right, to be poetic, or to seem nostalgic. It is our job as actors to mine the text and truly understand what is being said, and to deliver that meaning to the audience in a sophisticated way. Keywords allow us to do this. So how do we identify which word is the ‘right’ word to stress? There are many factors which can influence this decision.

What Influences Emphasis?

Many factors will influence why some words are given a certain weight and some or not. For us as actors, I’ve identified three major reasons why a word could be stressed to simplify our decision:

1. The Character’s Intention

This is probably the most influential factor in determining which are the key words in a line. What is your character actually trying to do? What do they want? How do they want to impact the other character they are speaking to (even if it is the audience?) Asking these questions of your character will provide a lot of clarity to you in your search for key words. 

2. The Character’s Backstory

What has the character’s life been like? What have been their primary concerns in their world? Is it love? Wealth? Safety? Peace? Developing a deep understanding of who your character is and what drives them will drastically impact the way you say a line and which words you stress. If they have experienced poverty in their early life, words relating to money or wealth may hold particular weight for them. If they are starved of love or affection, perhaps any words of tenderness will be key to them and will therefore become stressed or diminished, depending on your interpretation. 

3. The Character’s Accent

Where we are from has a major impact on the words we emphasise in speech. For English speaking countries as an example, there is a drastic difference in the words given weight by people from the US and people from England. If your character requires you to use an accent, dig deeply into the way people from that place tend to use their words. Are adjectives, verbs or nouns typically given more weight? Those accent ‘rules’ will give you a structure for identifying your key words at a deeper level. 

These are by no means the only factors which will influence emphasis and key words, but it’s a useful checklist to start with when building a character and preparing a role.


Process for Keyword Use

Let’s now look at another section of text from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and build a process for identifying and using the key words within it. This is Andrey: 

Ah, where is it, where has it gone, my past, when I was young and happy, and clever, when I dreamed and had lofty ideals, when the present and the future were lit up with hope and promise? Why is that, when our lives have scarcely begun, we become boring, grey, uninteresting, lazy, indifferent, useless, unhappy… Our town has been here for at least two hundred years, it has a hundred thousand inhabitants, and there is not one of them in all that number who is not like all the others, not a single saintly fanatic either in the past or in the present, not a single scholar, not a single artist, not even a remotely noteworthy man who might awaken some envy, or the desire to imitate him… All they do is eat, and drink, and sleep, and then die… others are then born and they also eat, and drink and sleep, and so as not to become completely numb from boredom, they embroider their lives with disgusting gossip, with vodka, with cards, and deceptions, and the wives deceive their husbands, while the husbands lie to themselves, they give the appearance that they see nothing and hear nothing, and the oppressing, inescapable and degenerate influence crushes their children, and the spark of divinity is extinguished in them, and they become just the same pitiful and mean corpses without life, all the same as one another, just as their parents were before them…

Ultimately, it is the actors responsibility to decide which words should be given more weight. Line readings given to an actor dictating which words are key can be disastrous. They force the actor into a corner giving them no other option for how the text may be spoken, removing all spontaneity and life from the performance. With that in mind, I am not going to point out to you which words in the above paragraph I think are key. Instead, I am going to propose a 5-step process for you to use to identify the key words which you feel will be most useful for you.

1. Scan

Read the text out loud. Free from any obligation, just read the text to get a feel for it. There is no right or wrong. Speak the text in a fairly neutral way, relieving yourself of the pressure to ‘perform’. Just feel the words and what they bring up for you, emotionally and imaginatively.

2. Underline

Go back to the top of the text, and in your head this time, read it again. Using a pencil, underline the words which seemed to jump out at you, the words which seem to hold primary importance to the character. Again, no right or wrong.

3. Test

Let’s see how the words you’ve underlined feel once spoken out loud. Read the text the whole way through, and give deliberate (and even exaggerated) stress to your chosen words. Have a think about the content of the speech, do the words you’ve underlined really seem to contain the essence of the characters conflict? Cross check with yourself: why do the words you’re underlining seem important? What do they mean to your character?

4. Decide

Let’s commit to some choices. Review the text once more, and add or subtract the underlined words as you see fit. You should now have a speech with a good number of words you have given particular significance in delivery. Play around with the way in which you emphasise these words now. What vocal (or physical?) techniques can you use to give emphasis to a key word without simply making it louder or stronger?

5. Discard

Arguably the most crucial element of this process. It’s time to let go. You have identified your key words, massaged them into your delivery, now your job is to trust that that emphasis will remain without any force being necessary from you. Too often actors will over-emphasise key words, leaving the audience thinking “alright already we GET it!”. 

Subtlety is key with this work. As with any ‘invisible work’ in the craft of acting, it should be just that: invisible. Hidden from the audience’s prying eyes and able to work on their subconscious, painting a picture in their minds of who your character truly is.


One final note on the use of key words. The importance you place on individual words should not surpass the importance you place on listening to the other characters in the scene. Say you have done the above process to identify which words energise you and unlock the character for youthat’s great, but you must be prepared to be malleable. Say, for instance, another actor in one particular performance has given extra weight to certain key words of their own for whatever reason. You must remain sensitive to these changes, as they may influence the key words you decide to use in that performance. Listening is always paramount to individual process, in my opinion. 


Key words are another valuable technique in the actors toolkit. Being able to identify them is crucial for text analysis, and can unlock some great mysteries about a character you are playing. In performance they can be tremendously useful too, giving greater meaning to the words you speak and allowing the audience an insight into your character and a greater understanding of the story. With this power comes great responsibility—the invisible work you do on key words should stay invisible. Be a master of your craft and deal with emphasis delicately, and your work will be revered! Enjoy applying the techniques and processes of this article in your work. Have fun with it, and keep it aligned with what excites and energises you. Any part of acting theory which destroys your joy or the life of your character should be used minimally. Rememberit’s your process!

About the Author

Jack Crumlin

Jack Crumlin is an actor and educator based in Sydney, Australia. Jack trained at Actors Centre Australia, and has since worked primarily in Shakespeare- he loves a good sword fight on stage. In his spare time Jack geeks out over fantasy novels and Greek Mythology and loves to shoot photos on film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three × three =