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Method Writing

Advanced techniques for writers

Method Acting

You’ve probably heard of method acting and you might have seen the comic version – playing on the stereotype of actors unable to play a part without knowing their motivation. It comes from Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. As most Theatre Studies A level students will be able to tell you, the Russian theatre director from the early twentieth century was reacting against the melodrama of his predecessors by suggesting that actors use naturalism instead; in other words, that they recreate a world that seemed real onstage.

Motivation is a character’s reason for being in the story and therefore in each scene of that story. It’s the way in which their needs and wants affect the action, the thing that drives them. If an actor knows that secretly their character wishes to take revenge on an adversary by the end of the play, that will inform the scene where they meet early on in the play – a fairly straightforward idea when we compare it to day’s hyper-realism!

Seeing snow for the first time

Method acting comes from the idea that in order to represent a character authentically on stage, you recall a time when you experienced something similar. For example, if your character sees snow for the first time during a play, you could remember when you first saw snow and recreate the same sense of wonder. This technique – using ‘emotion memory’ – enables actors to find a deep motivation for their character’s actions during the story and to make their performance as authentic as possible.

This is fine when we’re talking about memories of snow, but could get difficult if an actor is asked to play a disturbing scene and tries to channel a traumatic event. There have been famous examples of this, which I don’t need to go into here because I’ll end up going off on a tangent.

It is worth mentioning, though, that the same caveats apply to method writing. Be gentle with yourself when trying the technique and don’t try to channel traumatic events, especially not without support from a counsellor or coach.

So what is method writing?

This technique involves deliberately experiencing something so that you can recreate it on the page, or remembering something you have previously experienced for the same reason. This might be:

  • a sensory experience: for example, smelling a rose and recreating the smell in words
  • a common childhood memory: for example, remembering what your classroom was like at school
  • a place you’ve visited: for example, thinking about a museum so that you can write about a character visiting a museum
  • a formative experience: for example, moving house to the other side of the world
  • a remarkable event: for example, learning to skydive
  • a rite of passage: for example, recalling your wedding to make your description of a wedding more accurate.

Method Writing Guidelines

Here are some quick guidelines to follow when you first start working with this technique:

  • When you use this technique you don’t need to stay ‘true’ to the experiences, events or memories you’re describing. You could write the total opposite. Rather, method writing helps you to access the right level of detail.
  • You can use a direct experience of a thing, for instance, your character goes to the Natural History Museum and you go to the same museum to write about it. Alternatively, you can use an experience in the same category and use the results to help. For example, recall any museum visit from your past so that you can write about a character on a museum visit (including a visit to a fictional museum) now.
  • Remember to ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ Why are you including this particular detail? And ‘what if?’ X had happened? What if my character went to a museum and the dinosaurs came to life?

Linking an emotion to the experience or event

Instead of simply describing, you can link an emotion to the event or experience. This is next level stuff, using the objective correlative. Here’s how it works. You could write about:

  • a sensory experience associated with, say, disappointment
  • a common childhood memory associated with nostalgia
  • a place you’ve visited associated with love
  • a formative experience associated with loss
  • a remarkable event associated with jealousy
  • a rite of passage associated with anger

Let’s take the first one as an example. Here are the small steps:

  1. Smell some roses.
  2. Recreate the smell in words.
  3. What does the smell remind you of?
  4. Imagine a character who associates this smell with disappointment.
  5. Why? What happened?
  6. Write about the character coming across that smell – say on a bar of soap – and recalling that event.

Using everyday life

Possibly the best way to practise method writing isn’t to write about your memories, but rather to experience interesting things in your everyday life. For example:

  • deliberately putting yourself in the way of (or noticing) sensory experiences, like old trees, roaring fireplaces, interesting aromas
  • visiting new places, going on walks, writing at interesting venues or in natural places

Let me know how you get on.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,


P.S. If you’d like more exercises like these, take a look at the Small Steps Writing Guides.


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