W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No 7. Method Writing


Probably you've all heard about Method Acting, where actors really try to get into the hearts and souls of their characters. There are legendary stories about actors not breaking character between scenes in a movie or for weeks at a time, which really must be hard on the people they live with.

Actress Shelley Mitchell wrote about one of the Method's guru's Lee Strasberg and said, "Strasberg operated on the premise that he could teach anybody how to act. He taught that acting was an extension of being human and believed firmly that his techniques could help actors and non-actors lead a more fulfilling life. The "Method" is the pursuit of authenticity...An attempt to understand and quicken the human psyche in relation to our truth, and with that gesture to touch upon our psychological and spiritual potential."

This is not much different from what we try to do as writers. We pursue authenticity in our writing. If we don't understand the human psyche while defining it in relation to our own personal truths, our work will lack depth. The only difference is we search for the authenticity with a pen or keyboard instead of on a stage or in front of a camera.

Here are some of the techniques used in Method Acting that we can convert to writing. For more information look about Method Acting see www.theatrgroup.com/methodA/

Relaxation: If we are too tight, too worried our work suffers. When we find ourselves with sore muscles and in state of anxiety about our progress, we need to stop. Walk the dog, walk the pretend dog, meditate, go for a run, whatever it takes to bring back our sense of equilibrium.

Concentration: We need to get into what we are writing. See the room, see the people, see the action. Feel them. Smell them. Because I had a job for several years where my interruptions were interrupted by interruptions that were in turn interrupted, I found it carried over to my personal life including my writing. I'd make half the bed, wash a couple of dishes, water three of my seven plants, fluff a pillow. I'd write a paragraph of a story, play a game of Shanghai, write a page, start a letter to my stepmom. I needed to concentrate on concentrating. It took about three months and a new day job to solve the problem. I applied mental exercises when I wasn't writing. I would force myself to count back from 100 to 0 meditate, finish a chore and most importantly pretend my hands were glued to the keyboard and could not come unglued until I finished whatever writing goal I set. I also took all the computer games off the computer and put the disks in my closet and told myself they were guarded by a kachina doll that would slash me if I opened the door before I finished my daily quota of writing.

Magic If…Actors ask themselves a question. What would I do if… They then place themselves in the head of their character. It is an excellent trick for writers as well. Would you as the hero really hit your mother? Would you as the child throw a tantrum at that moment? Would you hide when your house was invaded by a burglar or would you attack first?

Objects: According to the web site given above "An object can be anything, imaginary, physical or fantasy, upon which the actor has chosen to concentrate." It can be a vase or a room.

Picking an object in our stories add depth. Imagine a room is perfectly furnished. Nothing is out of place. Make that perfection your object of concentration. Develop your story around the way that perfection causes your characters to act. People might sit on the edge of their chairs, wipe their feet before entering and speak more softly, all in reaction to the object (perfection).

Private moment: This is an exercise that method acting students are asked to do. They are required to show a private action their character would only do in private and would stop doing when others appeared. Go into your characters head and imagine him doing something that he would never dream of doing in front of someone else: drink wine from a bottle, masturbate, pick your nose. Your character will have a new dimension whether or not you use the private moment in your work.

Moment to moment: When we write we need to deal with the now of the scene we are creating. We cannot leave lose ends. In a play where method acting is not used an accidentally spilled drink will be left without any reacting. In a good story every action needs to be accounted for UNLESS ignoring it is part of the plot. A current action can trigger a flashback, but there has to be some connection for it to make sense to the reader.

Justification: An actor will ask why his/her character does a certain thing - sit down, get up, smile, frown, turn his/her back, lash out at his lover. When we write each action our characters need a justification as well. I find in a lot of the work of beginning writers that I edit, their characters smile and grin to a point that you want to wipe that stupid smile off their faces. Physical actions need logical reasons. Decisions need a reason. We won't write. "Here is the justification that Susan started throwing everything in her suitcase," but we might show all the things leading up to the decision either before or after the event.

Method actors work hard practicing their techniques to help them delve into the motivations of the people they are portraying to get the authenticity, and the people we create deserve no less of us.


This sample was taken from THE HOURS, The Pulitzer Prize winner and the Pen/Faulkner Awards in 1999, written by Michael Cunningham. He is writing from Virginia Woolf's point of view as she is creating Mrs. Dalloway.

"Clarissa Dalloway, she thinks, will kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little. Her party will fail, or her husband will once again refuse to notice some effort she's made about her person or their home The trick will be to render intact the magnitude of Clarissa's miniature but very real desperation; to full convince the reader that, for her domestic defeats are every bit as devastating as are lost battles to a general.

"Virginia walks through the door. She feels fully in command of the character who is Virginia Woolf, and as that character she removes her cloak, hangs it up, and goes downstairs to the kitchen to speak to Nelly about lunch."

Woolf is so into Mrs. Dalloway she cannot really separate the two. She feels her disappointments, her pain.

Woolf in the story is practicing Method Writing, although I'm sure Cunningham didn't think of it this way. He was more likely attempting to understand and quicken the human psyche in relation to his truth and what he thought was Woolf's truth, and with that gesture he hoped to touch upon the psychological and spiritual potential of his readers.


1. Invite all your characters from whatever you are working on to dinner (or lunch or breakfast). Set up a meal (it's okay to only cook for yourself unless you want to wash extra dishes). Choose food they might like to eat. Treat them as you would any guests. Have them sit around the table and pretend what their conversation will be. Better to do this when witnesses AREN'T around.

2. Pretend you are one of your characters and go for a bus ride as that person (or visit the mall or walk down the street). Try and dress as your character. For example, change makeup if you're a woman to look older or younger. Try to see the world through the eyes of your character. If s/he is depressed, ignore the sunshine, wonder if a man is about to steal something, etc. Don't see the bright sunshine or the mother hugging her child. Look for the overflowing garbage or whatever is appropriate for your character.

3. Pretend you are a serial killer. Decide on your pattern, then go out and pick out your next victim. (Do not act beyond the selection of the victim.)


My newsletter on research brought two letters. One pointed out that I misspelled Grasse leaving off the final "e". I should have added a paragraph on double checking things like that. Thank you to the spotter.

The second is from my writing mate. Her collection of short stories, The Past Present, can be ordered from Amazon.

Dear DL,

Your two scented examples were very timely as I'm working on a piece similar to the one you use as an example. Actually, it was from our early conversations on research and you telling me about what went on inside the perfume factory that got me going. Now your tips on how to use that research have come at the right moment as I revise the piece. Before I do my final revision, I really must get down to Grasse and see, or rather smell, for myself. But I will be careful to not put in everything I learn there.

Thanks for your great tips, and keep 'em coming.


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