What can Robert De Niro teach you about writing? by @StartYourNovel

What can Robert De Niro teach you about writing?


On Writing

by John Magnet Bell

John Magnet Bell

Robert De Niro (b. 1943) is an American actor, director and producer. Claiming that the Muses love him is an understatement — he’s played so many iconic movie roles by now, I’m surprised Euripides hasn’t risen from the grave to crown De Niro in laurels. Did I get my tropes wrong? I don’t care.

De Niro in Raging Bull

De Niro in Raging Bull

There was Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull: a simmering, hammer-fisted ball of rage.

De Niro in Taxi Driver

De Niro in Taxi Driver

“You takin to me?”

Taxi Driver, that least charming of rogues, speaking to secret fantasies of retribution.

De Niro in The Untouchables

De Niro in The Untouchables

De Niro’s portrayal of Al Capone is the definitive one, as far as I’m concerned.

Robert De Niro was born to Virginia Holton Admiral and Robert De Niro, Sr., two painters of cosmopolitan descent: Robert’s ancestry includes Albanian, Irish, English, German, French and Dutch forebears.

De Niro’s parents divorced when he was only 3, and he was raised by his mother in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan and in Greenwich Village.


At school he was dubbed “Bobby Milk” on account of his skin tone. It was also at school that he would first tread the stage as the Cowardly Lion in a production of The Wizard of Oz. Bobby was a shy ten-year-old who had discovered the magic of acting.


One word would be enough to describe De Niro’s love affair with his calling – that word is devotion. He’s one of the few actors alive today with a real talent for metamorphosis. Travis Bickle, Sam Rothstein, Al Capone… “Bobby Milk” invested them with a kind of intensity that can only come from love. Love for the work.


De Niro is the ultimate chameleon actor, and in a way it’s a shame that he’s become so famous, because his celebrity status will now color any role he takes on.


Maybe in a few decades, when his star has dimmed somewhat, we can once again appreciate his performances without the specter of fame at the back our minds.


So, what can Robert De Niro teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

“I’ve never been one of those actors who has touted myself as a fascinating human being. I had to decide early on whether I was to be an actor or a personality.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that great poets led boring lives, whereas bad ones seemed to hop from one adventure to the next – true poetry lay in what they did, not what they wrote.


Writing is not the most engaging form of physical exertion I can think of. In fact it is rather monotonous, even if you develop eccentric strategies to help you cope.


Writing is where you separate the thinkers from the doers. You have to be mentally prepared to sit down for hours and put one word in front of the other and pound your sentences into shape. That’s what a thinker does – she subordinates physical expression to the demands of her mind.


A writer is under no obligation to be interesting or eccentric. Deep thinking, dedication in the long term, these are the traits I find essential.


You can cultivate your social persona and your writing, but one of the two is going to take a few hits, depending on your skills.

De Niro in Casino

De Niro in Casino


“Listen to me very carefully. There are three ways of doing things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the way that *I* do it. You understand?”

“It’s important not to indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.

Greek actors wore masks on stage, as well as special shoes. Both mask and footwear had meaning, as tragic and comic actors put on different kinds.


The masks were stylized representations of human faces. For the most part, we don’t ask our actors to wear tangible masks anymore, but the principle is still there. They use their actual faces as masks.


You’re no different in daily life. Politeness is an act. Going up before a class and teaching is also an act. Any rational activity that makes you interact with other human beings forces you to develop self-control and represent your feelings. Not to mitigate or disown them, but to keep them out of the way.


So many writers struggle with dialogue because they don’t want the reader to feel left out of the conversation. That is a legitimate concern, but revealing too much through a character’s voice is a big risk. More often than not, your 33rd-degree Freemason assassin will sound like someone who can’t unzip his fly without help.


People hesitate and overthink. Momentous decisions are seldom matured overnight, and decisions that affect lives will be shared with restricted circles.


Don’t condescend to the reader. You’ll cripple the story, and ultimately their enjoyment.

DeNiro 5

“One of the things about acting is it allows you to live other people’s lives without having to pay the price.”


Creating a story, you leave your ties behind. Limitations that you observe in real life become fodder for brilliant prose. In the rich landscape of your mind, you can be Emperor of Ten Thousand Worlds or a deaf assassin. You can commit all the crimes you want against imaginary people and not worry about the police tracking you down.


When you don the writer’s mask, you’re excused from the obligations of your daily, outward self. You can turn loose the giant radioactive hedgehogs that populate your grimmest, grittiest nightmares.


You get to create lives and inhabit them. It’s like acting, with a major bonus: you don’t need to take any shit from directors. Ever.


More awesome by mad geniuses here on the GANG!

The Existential Triad in bioShock Infinite
One Red Shoe
With Music by @RussellBennetts & @Klassnik
What can Monty Python teach you about writing?

Flash fiction by John Magnet Bell:

A Prayer to the Coastal Winds
Stratospheric Beast
The Angels of Provenance
Parable of the Hungry Dark

About John Magnet Bell

John is a professional translator, writer and photographer. He writes about writing and he writes unconventional flashes of fiction at his website, Start Your Novel. Why? John explains his passion here.

Twitter: @StartYourNovel
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Website: Start Your Novel

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Typhon by John Magnet Bell

Typhon by John Magnet Bell