Method Acting in Writing

Recently a niece who is also an author and artists posted this on FaceBook:

“Writing this novel is an interesting adventure. I’m getting to know these characters as they grow and change. Today as I was writing a particular scene I felt like I was there like I was feeling everything. It’s a strange surreal thing. I wonder if that’s how actors feel when they are really into a scene.”

Pumping my fist and shouting, “YES!” I could not have been happier for her. Like many trying their hand at writing, she has not really had much writing instruction, but she is working at it, and this is a great discovery.

In the dramatic arts there is a style called “Method Acting,” which seems to be going out of vogue. This technique is where actors and actresses absorb the thoughts and feelings, and apply personal experiences to develop life-like performances. We are talking “A-list” performers here: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rod Steigher, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp — the impressive list goes on as does the memory of their works.

brando_marl-15meryl-streep2 lincoln2depp2As a recent example, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have spent a full year reading and thinking about nothing else except Abraham Lincoln as preparation for Steven Speilberg’s, “Lincoln.” When he stepped before the cameras he was no longer Daniel Day-Lewis. He WAS Lincoln.

Acting and writing have at their core — telling a story. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of Method Acting. It has given us a legacy full of good works, but above all it has given us sincerity and emotional truth. And, therein tells the success of a writer’s work. The reply to my niece’s observation was:

“If the character feels pain, so do you. If they laugh, you laugh. If they cry, you cry. You must feel what every character feels or the writing becomes flat. You created these folk and just because you’ve put them out for everyone to see doesn’t mean they leave you. They are you.”

Our desire as writers is to draw the reader into the story and there are techniques to get them interested, but at the heart, we want the reader (and they want this, too) to become a part of the story. Writers should describe the feelings and emotions of a scene so that the reader applies their feelings and and emotions.

It is not unusual that as I write a scene to find myself emotionally involved. If anyone were to be looking over my shoulder, they might think I’ve lost it.

In one novel my young protagonist is an orphan (his father is dead and mother is gallivanting around the world as part of her tourist business). He lives with an aunt whom he adores. One day he finds her dead. Shock, denial, fear of the future, he can’t cry until a surrogate father sits with him before the funeral. Peers taught this young man that men don’t cry until he sees this man, “the strongest man he knew,” begin to cry. (That scene was emotionally powerful.) As the adventure progresses he experiences a lot of feelings — joy, wonder, fear, bravado, and love. Reader response indicated they, too felt this young man’s emotions.

Now, there is a sizeable difference in ages between this author and my niece, therefore my reservoir of experiences is much greater, but even in twenty-plus years she has experiences on which to draw and flesh out characters. So, if a character is angry, pull out the anger as you’ve experienced it. If they are frustrated and cry, you cry. If they are exuberant, you laugh. Why? Because that character is you. It doesn’t matter what part they play.

I suppose you can call this Method Writing.

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