“Unpredictability is important to film. Know the objective of the scene, and then surprise yourself.” Veteran actor Stacy Keach shared that insight with an audience of theatre-goers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR last Saturday. While never quite sitting down on a high stool, he recounted highlights from his over-50 years in the acting biz, and offered advice he gives students when he teaches at George Mason University.
Keach said an actor can use unpredictability to amp up the vigor of a character. I flashed back two years to a performance of My Fair Lady at OSF. Ken Robinson, the actor who played Freddy, and sang “On the Street Where You Live,” was wildly unpredictable. He began the song typically, the opening notes delivered in a resonant tenor as he strolled the sidewalk in front of Professor Henry Higgins’ house, where Eliza Doolittle had taken up residence. But things diverged as the song progressed. Freddy sprawled on the street, hugging the pavement. By the end he was lying on one side and bicycling his legs in a circle, still singing full voice his love for the “street where you live.” The traditionally poignant song soared with this fresh and hilarious and unforgettable delivery.
We were hooked. We couldn’t wait until Freddy came on stage again, just to see what he’d do. We’ve seen many fabulous performances in the seven years we’ve been going to OSF. This performance stands out.
Unpredictability is something I appreciate in books, too, as a reader and also as a writer. What can be better than discovering the unexpected bits your characters offer as you write your way through a scene?
So here’s some advice from Stacy Keach, transposed for writers: Next time you get bogged down, try injecting some unpredictability. Commit to the intent of a scene, then let something unpredictable happen: write in an unanticipated character, an unexpected action, a less-obvious reaction. Or play around with the mechanics in an unpredictable way: point of view, verb tense, chronology, word choice, sentence structure.
Surprise yourself and discover a more compelling story.